The gospel text for Theophany (Epiphany) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the baptism of Jesus. One might ask, “Why?”
It is important to realize that baptism is the profound Mystery of our salvation and the manifestation of the gospel to the whole world as part-and-parcel of our salvation. Since this is the case, it is important to explore this Mystery and how it is “lived out.” The living out of it is, in fact, our life of discipleship.
In this regard, St. Nicholas Cabasilas (1322 – 1391), a well known theological writer and mystic of the Orthodox Church would be worth reading. His two treatises, Life in Christ and A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, are classics of Eastern sacramental theology.
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1.12-14, 16 RSV)
“Your love, Yahweh, reaches to the heavens,
Your faithfulness to the clouds;
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God,
Your judgments like the mighty deep.
Yahweh, protector of man and beast,
how precious, God, Your love!
Hence the sons of men
take shelter in the shadow of Your wings.
They feast on the bounty of Your house,
You give them drink from Your river of pleasure;
yes, with You is the fountain of life,
by Your Light we see the light.” (Psalm 36 JB)
That Jesus should come and be baptized by John is surely cause for amazement. To think of the infinite river that gladdens the city of God being bathed in a poor little stream; of the eternal and unfathomable fountainhead that gives life to all men being immersed in the shallow waters of this transient world!
He who fills all creation, leaving no place devoid of his presence, he who is incomprehensible to the angels and hidden from the sight of man, came to be baptized because it was his will. And behold, the heavens opened and a voice said: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.
The beloved Father begets love, and the immaterial Light generates light inaccessible. This is he who was called the son of Joseph and in his divine nature is my only Son.
This is my beloved Son. Though hungry himself, he feeds thousands; though weary, he refreshes those who labour. He has no place to lay his head yet he holds all creation in his hand. By his suffering he heals all sufferings; by receiving a blow on the cheek he gives the world its liberty; by being pierced in the side he heals the wound in Adam’s side.
And now, please pay close attention, for I want to return to that fountain of life and contemplate its healing waters as they gush out.
The Father of immortality sent his immortal Son and Word into the world, to come to us men and cleanse us with water and the Spirit. To give us a new birth that would make our bodies and souls immortal, he breathed into us the spirit of life and armed us with incorruptibility. Now if we become immortal, we shall also be divine; and if we become divine after rebirth in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, we shall also be heirs along with Christ, after the resurrection of the dead.
So I cry out, like a herald: Let peoples of every nation come and receive the immortality that flows from baptism. This is the water that is linked to the Spirit, the water that irrigates Paradise, makes the earth fertile, gives growth to plants, and brings forth living creatures. In short, this is the water by which a man receives new birth and life, the water in which even Christ was baptized, the water into which the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.
Whoever goes down into these waters of rebirth with faith renounces the devil and pledges himself to Christ. He repudiates the enemy and confesses that Christ is God, throws off his servitude and becomes an adopted son. He comes up from baptism resplendent as the sun and radiating purity and, above all, he comes as a son of God and a co-heir with Christ.
To him be glory and power, to him and his most holy, good and life-giving Spirit, both now and for ever. Amen.