Melkite Greek Catholic Church
WHAT'S WITH THE ARMENIANS? Every other Church – whether on the Julian or Gregorian Calendar – celebrates Christ’s Nativity on December 25 and His Theophany on January 6. The Armenian Church celebrates both feasts together on the same day, January 6. So what’s with them?

The Ancient Practice

The oldest practice documented in Christian history is that of a single celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Magi, all the events of Christ’s childhood recorded in the Scriptures, as well as His baptism by John in the Jordan and His first miracle, at the wedding feast of Cana. St Cyril of Alexandria writes about it at the beginning of the third century.

In the next century, St Gregory the Theologian, writing in the year 380, refers to this practice, still observed in his Church in Asia Minor: “Now if the Feast of the Theophany, and so also of the Nativity, for it is called both, since two names are ascribed to one reality…The name is Theophany, since He has appeared, and Nativity, since He has been born” (Oration 38, On the Theophany or the Nativity of Christ, 3).

Scholars today believe that a single feast of the Manifestation of God was observed in the West as well, but on December 25. In both cases, the date was determined by the date believed to be the date of the crucifixion. In the ancient world it was commonly believed that the date of a truly great person’s death coincided with the date of his conception or birth. Some rabbis still teach that a righteous person is entrusted with a mission on the day of his conception or birth. In one who completes his mission in the most perfect way possible, this perfection is expressed in the fact that his mission ends on the same day that it was begun.

In the East it was believed that April 6 was the date of Christ’s conception and crucifixion; consequently January 6 marked the celebration of His birth. In the West, the corresponding dates were March 25 and December 25.

After the first Ecumenical Council in ad 325, Christians in East and West became more aware of the practices of one another’s Churches. The East adopted the Roman date of December 25, dedicating it to the events of Christ’s birth. According to St John Chrysostom, this happened at Antioch in approximately 378. Preaching there in 388 on the Feast of the Nativity, he states that its observance was not yet quite ten years old. It quickly spread to the other Churches in the East. The East then devoted January 6 to the commemoration of the Lord’s baptism.

The Synaxarion read at orthros on the Feast of the Nativity notes that the day is devoted to all the events of Christ’s birth: “On the twenty-fifth of this month we commemorate the nativity according to the flesh of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ… On this day we commemorate the veneration of the Magi… On this day we commemorate the shepherds who beheld the Lord.” To this day, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and the visitation of the shepherds at the evening Vesper-Liturgy and the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel at the morning Liturgy.

In the West, the division was slightly different, with January 6 dedicated to the visit of the Magi, as well as the baptism of Christ, as the following antiphon for vespers on the Roman feast of the Epiphany shows: “We keep this day holy in honor of three miracles: this day a star led the Wise Men to the manger; this day water was turned into wine at the marriage feast; this day Christ chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan for our salvation, alleluia.”

At first, the Armenian Church adopted this arrangement. In the sixth century, when the division between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches became fixed, the Armenians reverted to their older practice.

Manifestation to Israel

The original single feast of the Nativity-Theophany celebrated the first revelations of His divinity, His incarnation and the beginning of His ministry as Lord and Savior of mankind. It put forth a number of themes which we now find spread out throughout the festal season.

On the feast of the Nativity (and of Christ’s circumcision on January 1) we celebrate God becoming man in a particular place and time. Jesus is born in the heart of God’s chosen people, Israel, and He is adored by them in Mary and Joseph and the shepherds who came to the cave. These feasts celebrate the particular revelation of God to the nation of Israel in terms of its sacred history, as we proclaim in this verse from vespers: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and celebrate, all you lovers of Zion; for the temporal bonds with which Adam was condemned have been loosed; Paradise has been opened for us and the serpent has been annihilated, having beheld now that the one deceived by her of old has become a mother to the Creator. O, the depth, riches, wisdom and knowledge of God: that the instrument of death which brought death to all flesh, has become the first-fruit of salvation to all the world because of the Theotokos. The all-perfect God has been born from her as a babe; and by His birth He has sealed her virginity; by His swaddling-clothes He has loosed the chains of our sins; and by His babyhood He has healed the pains and sorrows of Eve. Let all creation, therefore, exchange glad tidings and rejoice; for Christ has come to recall it and to save our souls.”

Manifestation to the Gentiles

Our vision of Christ’s coming work is widened as the Magi, pagan astrologers, arrive “from the East” to worship Him. The gifts they bring represent kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense) and a self-emptying death (myrrh). In them Christ’s kingship over all nations is revealed. He is to be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

“You have shone forth from the Virgin, O Christ, super-sensual Sun of righteousness. And a star pointed to You O uncontainable One contained in a cave, and the Magi were led to worship You. Wherefore, with them we magnify You. O Giver of life, glory to You!”

Manifestation to All Creation

On the feast of the Theophany, another aspect of Christ’s incarnation is celebrated. His coming transforms, not only humanity, but all creation. In His baptism, He sanctifies the waters, a primordial element of creation according to Genesis, representing the ultimate transfiguration of all things in the Kingdom of God. As we hear at the great blessing of water on the feast of the Theophany, “Today land and sea divide between them the joy of the world, and the world is filled with rejoicing. The waters behold You, O Lord; the waters behold You and they fear. The Jordan turns back its course, and the mountains shout with glee as they behold God in the flesh.”

“Of old the prince of this world was named king of all that was in the waters; but by Your baptism he is choked and destroyed, like Legion in the lake. With Your mighty arm, O Savior, You have granted freedom to Your creation, which he had enslaved” (Canon at Compline on the Fore-feast of the Theophany).
ST MARK’S GOSPEL BEGINS its story of the Lord Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River. Its first verses introduce us to the figure of St John the Baptist whom it proclaims to be the fulfillment of two prophecies. The first prophecy is “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You” (Malachi 3:1). In this prophecy three characters are mentioned. The speaker is God who promises to send His messenger, whom the New Testament says is John the Baptist, and who prepares the way for the third person, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. The second prophecy quoted is Isaiah 40:3. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.” The verses that follow describe John as a dweller in the wilderness, a kind of ascetic singularly dedicated to preparing for the One who would come to usher in the Kingdom of God. The Precursor coming before the One sent by God is a sign in the Old Testament that the Messiah is at hand. All four Gospels cite this prophecy as fulfilled in John who sets the stage for the appearance of the Lord Jesus. John prepares for the coming of Christ by calling people to repentance. He was specific in identifying the faults of his hearers. He confronted the Jewish religious elite, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who felt that they did not need to repent: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:8-10). It is not enough, John told them, to be physically descended from Abraham; one must trust in God whole-heartedly as Abraham did. The call to repentance continues in Luke’s Gospel as people ask John, “‘What shall we do then?’ He answered and said to them, ‘He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’ Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what is appointed for you.’ Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, ‘And what shall we do?’ So he said to them, ‘Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:10-14). To be ready for the Messiah people in authority could not bully those over whom they had power, and no one could ignore the poor and needy.

The Baptism of John

John contrasts his own ministry with that of the Messiah in several ways. One of them concerns baptism: “I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Matthew and Luke have the same words but add, somewhat cryptically, “and fire.” Baptism in water was not unknown to first-century Jews. The Torah prescribes it for ritual purification in a number of cases such as contact with a corpse, discharge of blood or other fluids, or eating meat improperly slaughtered. Some people regularly immersed themselves before the high holydays. Converts to Judaism were also required to immerse themselves on joining the worshipping community. Orthodox Jews still practice these immersions today. John had given a new twist to the ritual cleansing. His baptism was not concerned with ritual impurity but with repentance for moral failings like the faults mentioned in Mt and Lk quoted above. Also, people accepting this baptism did not immerse themselves; the rite was administered by John. Submission to the hand of the Baptizer was an act of humility expressive of whole-hearted repentance.

Baptism in Christ Jesus

At the beginning of His ministry the Lord Jesus also made use of the baptism of repentance. We read in the Gospel of St John that “…when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee” (John 4:1-3).  With His death and resurrection, however, baptism became a vehicle for the imparting of the Holy Spirit. Appearing to His disciples in the upper room, the risen Christ had bestowed His Holy Spirit upon His disciples unto the forgiveness of sins. Baptism would no longer be merely an expression of a person’s repentance; it would actually convey the remission of sins by the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers in Christ would be baptized into His death and rise in His resurrection, becoming temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells in Him and in His People. Before His ascension Christ commissioned His followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20). The power of the Holy Spirit would enable them to begin a mission which is still being undertaken by the Church all over the world. Early Christians recognized the difference between the baptism of John and baptism in Christ. We read in the Acts of the Apostles, “…it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples, he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ So they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said to them, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ So they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’  Then Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them…” (Acts 19:1-5). This passage also witnesses to the complementary element in baptism, the laying-on of hands, which we call chrismation.

The Baptism of John Today

Around the year 1290, an Italian Dominican, Fra Ricoldo Pennini, encountered a small group of people in Mesopotamia who called themselves Sabaeans, whom he described as “A very strange and singular people... Their writing is a sort of middle way between Syriac and Arabic. They detest Abraham because of circumcision and they venerate John the Baptist above all.” In the sixteenth century Portuguese Jesuits came upon a similar group in Bahrain. Like the disciples St Paul met in Ephesus, this latter group of Sabaeans accepted baptism in Christ. A tiny fragment of this people still exist called Mandaeans, who appear to have incorporated Gnostic beliefs into their tribal lore. They practice the baptism of John every Sunday at their worship service which has elements in common with Christian liturgy. No one is sure when this community came into being. Nor is it certain whether they will survive the current destruction of their homeland in northern Iraq.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness has gone forth: “O mountains, rejoice! Exult with joy, all mankind! For the eternal Word took flesh and is coming to be baptized in the Jordan by hands that He created, in order to take away the sin of the world!”
Exapostilarion of the Fore-feast
CHRISTMAS EVE AND NEW YEAR'S EVE are holiday milestones in American society. In our tradition January 5, Theophany Eve, is also a special day of preparation and anticipation leading into one of the most important festivals of the Church year. Like Christmas Eve, Theophany Eve is a paramony, a day of continual prayer and fasting, leading up to the celebration of the feast. Part of what makes this a day of continual prayer is the celebration of the Royal Hours which replaces the ordinary First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours served every day in Byzantine practice. The Divine Liturgy is not served until the end of the fasting day, when it is joined to vespers to begin the feast. The Royal Hours are served on the Paramony of Christmas, the Paramony of the Theophany and on Great and Holy Friday which we might call the “Paramony of Pascha.” In addition, some Greek Churches serve the Royal Hours on the Eve of Pentecost, but without fasting. Our cycle of daily services has its origin in the experience of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. Since the prescribed round of morning and evening sacrifices could only be conducted in the Jerusalem temple, the exiled Jews developed a cycle of prayers, hymns and Scripture readings to be said throughout the day instead. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile, these prayers were incorporated into the usage of the temple. Jews today observe three daily services (morning, afternoon and evening) corresponding to the times of the three daily temple sacrifices. The first Christians continued the custom of praying at these specific times. The Acts of the Apostles records St Peter going apart to pray at the sixth hour (Acts 10:9) and at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). With the development of monasticism these daily prayers took on the character of formal services. Other services were added in imitation of the Psalmist’s witness, “Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:164). The hours came to commemorate important events which the Scriptures say took place at those times. Thus our Third Hour recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (see Acts 2). The Byzantine Sixth and Ninth Hours evoke the memory of Christ’s crucifixion and death: “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice … and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:45, 50). While for most of the year the Hours are “cell services” – without choral responses or accompanying ritual, meant to be served by monastics in their cells (or by anyone at work or at home), the Royal Hours are served solemnly in church with hymns, Scripture readings and ceremony. They are generally served without interruption and conclude with the Typika. The name “Royal Hours” comes from the practice of the Great Church in Constantinople. The emperor and his court would attend the Hours on these days, emphasizing their importance in the life of the Church.

Scripture in the Royal Hours

As a rule, the Scriptures read at the Hours are all taken from the Psalms. In the Royal Hours, however, selections from both the Old and New Testaments are read, in addition to the Psalter. The New Testament selections recount the ministry of John and the baptism of Christ as well as the meaning of baptism in the Church. The Old Testament readings, all taken from the Book of Isaiah the Prophet, provide us with an illustration of how Old Testament prophecies are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The Prophet Isaiah lived in the eight century BC and, like other prophets, called on his hearers to repent and to conform their lives to God’s way. The following passage, read at the Third Royal Hour, illustrates Isaiah’s message: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Isaiah warned that, if people did not repent, the nation would suffer at the hands of its enemies (at that time, the Assyrians). If they did repent, however, they would be restored and given new life. We see this in the selection read at the Sixth Royal Hour, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His Name; make known His deeds among the nations, proclaim that His Name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:3-6). The second half of the book, added some 200 years later, reflects the same themes. At this point in Israel’s history their great enemy was Babylon rather than Assyria. The Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem and destroy the temple, dragging the most prominent Jews into exile.

Streams in the Desert

The promise for their restoration dominates the second half of Isaiah. Jerusalem, no longer desolate, will be rebuilt and will water its thirsty people. At the First Royal Hour we read, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the lily. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon… Behold, your God will come…. He will come and save you. … For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:1-7). The power of Babylon ended just as that of Assyria had centuries before, but the ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies would only come with Christ. We see in Him the Source of eternal life, the One who truly turns the arid wilderness of thirsty hearts into springs of water. This theme would be taken up in the Gospel of John, where we read the words of the Lord Jesus “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.  But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those who believe in Him would receive” (John 7:37-38). The frequent mention of water in these passages, then, does not just allude to the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan but to the Lord Himself. He is the One who can refresh with the living water of the Holy Spirit all who come to Him. He is the One who is revealed at the Jordan by the Father’s voice and the Spirit’s hidden presence and who begins to announce the good news of our salvation to the world.
When he saw the Lord of glory draw near to him, the Forerunner cried out: “Behold the One who redeems the world from corruption! Behold the One who delivers us from affliction! Behold the One who, in His mercy, has come forth upon earth from a pure Virgin, granting remission of sins! Instead of servants, He makes us children of God. Instead of darkness, He gives light to mankind through the waters of His divine baptism. Come, let us glorify Him together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
Idiomelon at the Ninth Royal Hour
WHO IS THE GREATEST SAINT after the Theotokos? Recent sentiment in the West looks to her spouse, St. Joseph, as its foremost representative of holiness. For the Eastern Churches, however, “the Lord’s witness is enough” (troparion of St John). The liturgy here refers to the words of Christ concerning John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11) Thus John the Baptist is regularly depicted in the “Deisis” icons flanking Christ, opposite the Theotokos. This same grouping is found as the basic component of icon screens along with the icon of the church’s patron. A moving testimony to St John comes from the fourth-century Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. John, he writes, “…did not enlarge the boundaries of an empire. He did not prefer triumphs of military conquest to honors. Rather, what is more, he disparaged human pleasures and lewdness of body, preaching in the desert with great spiritual power. He was a child in worldliness, but great in spirit. He was not captivated by the allurements of life, nor did he change his steadfastness of purpose through a desire to live…” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 1.31).

John in the Scriptures

John’s unique holiness is displayed in the story of the Theotokos’ visit to his mother Elizabeth. There the Gospel tells us that, at Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:39-45). The Gospel thus shows John as aware even in the womb of the greatness of Christ who had been conceived in the womb of Mary. Thus he fulfills the prophecy made by the angel Gabriel to John’s father, Zachariah: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:45). Reflecting on this event, St Ambrose connects the experience of John in the womb with that of another prophet, Jeremiah. This prophet, who lived during the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, describes God’s call to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). While Jeremiah describes himself as consecrated before his birth, Luke describes John as nothing less than filled with the Holy Spirit. John reappears in the Gospels as an adult, living in the Judean desert and baptizing at the Jordan. This “desert” was not what we consider desert; it was actually grazing land, useless for agriculture but able to sustain the sheep and goats and the occasional solitary who lived there. Nothing is said in the Gospels about the intervening years of John’s life, nor how he came to be in the desert. Some modern scholars have speculated that John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the time which had retired to the desert and established a community there. Earlier lore, recorded in the fourth-century Life of John by Serapion of Thmuis, held that John was spirited away to the desert by his mother to escape slaughter when Herod’s servants killed the Holy Innocents. In Serapion’s Life Elizabeth died when her son was seven years old; thereafter the boy was cared for by an ascetic in the desert.

The Ministry of John

St Mark’s Gospel presents us with a thumbnail description of John as a Forerunner, preparing the way for One greater than he by calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). In Matthew John is depicted preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). God’s action in Christ was immanent; those in need of repentance had best make up their minds to do so. Matthew singles out the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious establishment – calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) most in need of repentance. He depicts the coming Messiah as One who “will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor” (we would say “clean house”) burning up the unrepentant “with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). One image from the Gospels has found its way into many icons of John baptizing. John is described as warning, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9), meaning that the house cleaning is about to begin. In many icons an axe is shown imbedded in a tree or tree stump to suggest this image. In Luke specific examples for repentance are given in response to the question “What shall we do?” John tells the tax collectors not to extort more money than the tax law allows. He tells soldiers not to intimidate or accuse others falsely and to be content with their pay. And he tells everyone to give alms from what they have (cf., Luke 3:10-14). In St John’s Gospel another note is added to the Baptist’s message. He identified Jesus as the One who is coming and depicts his own work as a testimony to Jesus. “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world …I came baptizing with water that He should be revealed to Israel” (John 1:29, 31).

The Baptism of Repentance

Immersion into a stream, river or bathing pool (Mikveh) was practiced for ritual purposes in first century Judaism. Orthodox and many Conservative Jews continue the practice to this day. Ritual baths were necessary for Jewish men in preparation for Yom Kippur or the Sabbath, for entering the temple or ascending the Temple Mount. Women were required to bathe for ritual purity after childbirth or menstruation. Gentiles submitted to a ritual bath upon converting to Judaism. Some differences between these ritual baths and John’s baptism are obvious. Jewish ritual baths are self-administered; John baptized people into the water. Jewish baptism was a physical cleansing to achieve ritual purity; John’s baptism was to signify repentance, a moral act. In John’s time, Jewish people expressed repentance by offering sacrifices in the temple. Since the destruction of the temple, Jews express repentance by prayer, almsgiving or doing righteous deeds. “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one’s table atones” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, 55a.). Hospitality to the poor had become the Jewish way of atoning for sins.

John’s Baptism and Baptism into Christ

In the Acts of the Apostles we read how St. Paul, “finding some disciples” in Ephesus, learned that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Hearing that they had been baptized with the baptism of John, St Paul explained: “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe in Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4). Christian baptism is neither a kind or ritual purification or a symbol of repentance. It is the incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through faith we are buried with Him in baptism and then rise from the water with Him in the likeness of His resurrection. This effects an organic union with Christ in His Body the Church, a result never imagined by John. As we say at every baptism in the words of St. Paul (Galatians 3:27), “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
OUR NATURE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED in Christ… our nature is being transformed in Christ… our nature will be transformed in Christ. At first glance this may seem like a grammar exercise about verbs. In fact it is a summary of theology: exploring the magnitude of the mystery which is Christ is us.

Christ’s Coming Has Transformed Us

The focus of our Christmas celebration is most often on the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke. They speak of the trip to Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, the magi and the star. But from the earliest days of the Church believers have seen the birth of Christ containing, as it were, the whole life and death of Christ as a seed. His acceptance of our human nature necessarily includes His acceptance of the cross and death, and His renewal of mankind by His resurrection. In the same way our decision to have children must include the decision to accept the Terrible Twos, the Traumatic Teens, and all that follows. For many religious people, when something holy comes into contact with something profane the holy thing becomes defiled. This principle is found in Judaism and Islam and accounts for the ritual washings and similar practices in these religions. The message of the Gospel, however, is that when the Holy One, the Son of God, comes into contact with something profane it is the profane thing which is changed. It is sanctified by contact with the holy. God is not defiled by His fallen creation; His creation is transformed when He enters into it in Christ. As described by St Gregory of Nyssa, “The Word in taking flesh was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within Himself, so that the human should be deified by this mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ, the first-fruits of creation” (Against Appolonarius, 2). By taking on our humanity the Word of God assumes all that we are, except sin, so that we can become by grace what He is by nature, children of the Father. Our nature is transfigured in Him. It is divinized or deified. As St Gregory the Theologian boldly expressed it, “He took our flesh and our flesh became God, since it is united with God and forms a single entity with Him” (Third Theological Oration). Our society, and contemporary culture in general, is committed to the value and freedom of the individual. We recognize that each person has worth in himself or herself and this is good. But a stress on individualism inevitably leads to the separation of peoples from one another. At worst, people are alienated from society, from God, from one another. At the least, we find it hard to see the communal dimension to the incarnation: that the entire human race is irrevocably changed because the Son of God has come into it.

Christ’s Presence Transforms Us

“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). These final words of Christ to His disciples before His ascension affirm His continuing presence with us. His physical presence was limited in time; His spiritual presence will last as long as time itself will last. The focus on Christ’s spiritual presence is His Body, the Church. It is the mystery or sacrament of the risen Christ, which – like all sacraments – reveals His presence behind a veil. The Church is the world being transformed in Christ; at the same time it is Christ transforming the world. The faithful, insofar as they are living a life of repentance, seeking to model their lives on Christ’s, are the world being transformed. The faithful, insofar as they celebrate Christ’s presence in the Scriptures, in baptism, the Eucharist and the other mysteries – including the mystery of love for others – are Christ transforming the world. The saints are those who witness by their lives that we can be transformed and transform others in Him. Christ’s presence in the Scriptures was at first practically limited to its public reading in the assembly. People would listen carefully so as to memorize what they heard. Only the wealthy could afford hand-copied Scriptures for their personal use. In addition Books of Scripture, particularly the Gospels, would be richly adorned, carried in procession and offered for veneration, reminding believers that Christ was truly in them. Since the invention of printing the Scriptures have become increasingly available; as a result we may not be as quick to recognize the divine presence in a paperback Bible as in the Gospel on the holy table. What enables us to experience the presence of Christ when we read the Scriptures – or, for that matter, when we assist at the Liturgy or other mysteries? St Isaac the Syrian offers the following advice: “Never approach the words of the mysteries that are in the Scriptures without praying and asking for God’s help. Say, ‘Lord, grant me to feel the power that is in them.’ Reckon prayer to be the key that opens the true meaning of the Scriptures” (Ascetical Treatises, 73). Even more hidden to us is the presence of Christ in others. This presence calls silently for us to acknowledge Him, a call that we often are too deaf to hear. Some, like Mother Teresa and others like her, can hear that call and they become the light and salt of the Gospel sayings. The presence of these saints with their acute hearing of Christ’s voice is one of the signs that Christ is transforming the world even now.

Christ’s Return Will Transform Us

“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). St Paul expresses here his hope in the final transformation of “all who have loved His appearing.” Like St. Paul we await our ultimate transformation at Christ’s return. As the Church celebrates Christ’s appearing in the flesh (the Nativity) and His appearing in power at the Jordan (the Theophany), we are reminded that Christ’s first coming would find its ultimate fulfillment only in His second coming.
From the Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“In His first coming He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In His second coming He is clothed with light as with a garment. In His first coming He bore the cross, despising its shame; He will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels. It is not enough for us, then, to be content with His first coming; we must wait in hope of His second coming. What we said at His first coming, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ we shall repeat at His last coming...
WHILE OUR SECULAR, COMMERCIAL culture all but sees December 26 as the end of the Christmas season, for the Church the festive season is just beginning. We continue to observe the fabled “12 days of Christmas” – one day just isn’t enough to commemorate the presence of God among us. The Feast of the Nativity is observed for the rest of December, culminating with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on the eighth day (January 1). Then we begin the time of preparation for the Feast of the Theophany. In our Church this period from Christmas to Theophany is a festive time, free from fasting in contrast to the previous weeks of fasting. And as the “last and greatest day” of the paschal feast is Pentecost, so too the last and greatest day of our festival is the celebration of Christ’s epiphany at the Jordan: the holy Theophany of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. In highlighting the birth of Christ the Church focuses on the Word of God setting aside His divine glory to identify with us. He “…made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). At the Theophany, however, we see the power of God manifested at Jesus’ baptism. In His emerging public ministry we see that power at work, bringing healing and forgiveness as a sign of the ultimate healing of mankind which will be brought about at the cross. The Gospel portrays John the Forerunner as promising the coming of One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will not simply come; He will act. And so while our Christmas celebration focuses on Christ’s coming in the flesh; the Theophany celebrates His coming in power. The Scriptures call it an epiphany: an appearance or public manifestation before the people of Israel. Christmas sets forth for us the incarnation in the flesh: God becoming human in Christ, and His self-abasement in doing so. The Theophany highlights His presence in power among sinners, to take away the sin of the world. Our Church has come to call this event a theophany – a divine epiphany – because it was the first public appearance of Christ’s divinity. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is affirmed by the voice of the Father and the Spirit in the form of a dove. This event, a manifestation of “the grace of God that brings salvation to all” (Titus 2:11), is the first epiphany of the Holy Trinity. The Theophany, as might be expected, was one of the baptismal feasts of the early Church: a day when newly-baptized believers would be initiated into the worshipping community. Since witnessing a baptism should always remind us of our own, the Church selects this passage from St Paul’s Epistle to Titus for this feast: “…according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit… that we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5,7). We are reminded that we have tasted the fruit of Christ’s coming in baptism and chrismation, and have become heirs of the kingdom to come. Both of these feasts evoke yet another epiphany, one still to come: Christ’s manifestation in glory as Judge. While the Gospel readings for the season focus on the events surrounding Christ’s theophany, the Epistle readings point to its consequences for our life. St Paul affirms that Christ will give the crown of righteousness on that day “to all who have loved His appearing [epiphanean]” (2 Timothy 4:8). For this reason we are called, first of all, to live “soberly, righteously and devoutly in the present age” (Titus 2:12) - sophronos, kai dikaios kai evsovos. First of all, our love for Christ among us is reflected in our living soberly. Sophronos does not mean morosely, gloomily, but moderately, with self-restraint. It is a human virtue prized by the ancients long before Christ. To live prudently is to be self-controlled, without excess or extravagance. Living in moderation speaks about the way we see ourselves in the world: not simply as consumers of goods and entertainment, but as people for whom the inner life predominates. It is a precondition, as it were, for living a Christian life. To live righteously speaks of the way we conduct our relations with others. “Righteousness” in the Scriptures refers, not to justice in the legal sense, but to living in a manner that reflects God’s way for us. It is the path of those who keep the commandments, whose actions reflect the love for neighbor preached by Christ. Finally we are reminded to express our relationship to God by living devoutly. From its earliest days – based upon earlier Jewish practices – Christians have been enjoined to mark the passing of each day with the worship of God. If circumstances allow, we are to join with others in worship; if they do not, we can and should worship alone. Such regularity in worship reminds us that we are being blessed by God our Creator and Redeemer “at all times, at every hour.” We respond to Christ’s coming in the flesh and in power as well as His ultimate coming in glory by a life of moderation, of love of neighbor and of honor to God in all things.
Leaving Bethlehem in spirit, and turning to the Jordan with Christ, come, all you families of the nations, let us sing to Him with a pure heart and lips. Let us say in faith, “Blessed is Your coming, O our God: glory to You!”
Radiant was the Feast that passed – and more radiant yet is the Feast that comes.
An angel announced the first; a Forerunner preaches the second. In the first, Bethlehem weeps because of the blood poured out as it was deprived of its infants; in the second, the waters are blessed and the baptismal fonts bring about the rebirth of countless children.
Formerly, a star revealed You to the wise men; now the Father reveals You to the world. O Savior who took flesh and now comes to manifest Yourself, O Lord, glory to You!
Vespers, Sunday before Theophany

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