We have come now to the end of this great festal season of our Lord. The twin feasts of the Nativity and Baptism celebrate the coming of the Divine Light into the world. God has become man and has dwelt among us, illumining the whole world with His divine Light. He has revealed Himself to us and His Light is set upon a hill for all to see – a beacon of salvation by which He draws the whole world to Himself. This is proclaimed to us in the Gospel that we heard today: “The people which sat in darkness (that is all of fallen mankind) saw a great light (that is the light of Christ); and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death (for indeed we live under the shadow of death), light (the Life of Christ) is spring up.” And so I say to you today, Rejoice, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
The Holy Apostle reminds us of the purpose of this Light which has come into the world, saying that “This is a faithful saying, worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Indeed this is true that God has loved us so greatly that in order that we might be joined to Him, He Himself descended from Heaven and took our own flesh upon Himself, the Creator has assumed the essence of His creation in order that He might bring us to Himself. He has done all this despite the fact that we turned away from Him and have enslaved ourselves to sin, death and the devil. In becoming man, the Son of God has deigned to assume our slavery as well – not so that He might be trapped in the same condition as we, but rather that having taken death in hand, He might defeat death, and that having faced our captor, He might free the captives and lead us back onto the path of salvation from which we have strayed. He Who is Light has come into the region of death and has dispelled the darkness there, illumining every nook and cranny and illumining the path into the Kingdom of Heaven for all who will follow Him. This salvation is offered not only to a chosen few or only the righteous, but is offered to all men – even to the greatest of all sinners. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and it is to all of us that God has come to raise us up and restore us to His glory.
What is this salvation to which we are called? It is not uncommon to speak of “paradise” and “heaven” as the salvation to which we aspire – but this is not the case. Paradise and even heaven itself is too small, too limited. No we are called to something greater than merely to dwell in paradise or to enter into heaven – we are called to “come in the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure and stature of the fullness of Christ .” We are called to enter into union with the God/man Jesus Christ. It is for this purpose that He assumed our nature – so that we might be joined to Him and so through our union with Him we might enjoy the Light of the Holy Trinity. We are called to become perfect – as He is perfect – and so in that perfection to become vessels of the Light.
We are given this great and glorious vision as an anchor of hope to take with us into the difficult journey upon which we are about to embark. The preparation for Great Lent is coming quickly and so as we begin the difficult ascetic labor by which we die to ourselves that we might rise with Christ, we can always look to this great promise – that the Light has come into the world so that we might be enlightened. As St Athanasius has so beautifully told us: God became man so that man might become god. This is our destiny, our hope, the promise that keeps us from falling into despair – this is the Light that illumines the darkness; the Light that reveals to us the path of salvation. This is the Light that has come into the world that the world through Him might be saved.
On this day, this great Feast of the Church, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We are reminded that at the presence of the Lord, the sea saw and fled, and Jordan turned back. We also celebrate the humility of Saint John the Forerunner who recognized his unworthiness to baptize his Creator. We point out the folly of thinking that somehow the sinless Creator needed to be cleansed of sin by His own creation. We remember the voice of the Father bearing witness to His Son In whom He is well pleased. We remember the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a dove to confirm the truth of these words. We see in this a manifestation of the one God in Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
On this day, we will also bless water. And so we are reminded throughout the services of the prefeast and the Feast of the importance of water in the history of our salvation. The Old Testament readings from vigil last night took us back to the first chapter of Genesis. We remembered the Spirit of God hovering over the waters while the earth was unfinished. Our Lord who was baptized in the Jordan is that very same God who created the firmament in the midst of the water, and divided the waters. He watered the whole surface of the earth by a fountain giving drink to all the plants and herbs of the earth. He planted a garden in Eden and watered it by a river. From the beginning, water was essential to life -- to all of creation.
But we also reflect on the ways in which water has brought death in our fallen world. In the great flood, Noah and his family alone were spared the death the rest of the human race. In the Red Sea, Israel walked through as upon dry land, while the Egyptians perished in the waters. We hear about the bitter waters of Marah from which the Israelites could not drink until the Lord directed Moses to a piece of wood and commanded him to put in the water to make it drinkable.
Water, which was created good by our Creator, gives drink to plants, to animals and to man, it washes clean, and makes new again. We are born out of water, and are sustained through this life with water; but water drowns, it can be bitter or harbor dangerous organisms which can kill. As a result of the Fall the same substance which gives life can also bring death.
But on this day, we remember that Our Lord came to be baptized in the River Jordan, and by doing so, he changed the nature of Water, that it might be what He always intended it to be. This sanctified water is meant to cleanse, but instead of merely washing away dirt, it now washes away sins in Baptism, it cleans our wounds and grants us healing. This bitter water has been changed by the wood of the cross to sweet, living water which wells up in us unto eternal life. Even the things that we may rightly fear about water are changed. Saint Sophronios tells us that “Today in the Jordan they saw the triumph of the Master, they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation.”
Once Noah watched men die for their disobedience, today we see death and sin drowned in the waters of the Jordan. In Christ’s baptism, it is not the sins of our sinless Lord that are forgiven, but our sins. Truly this is what God intended water to be for, and it becomes that by His entering into His creation and sanctifying it.
So we take this holy water and we drink it; we are splashed and sprinkled with it; some of us immerse ourselves in it; we bless our homes, our cars, and our possessions with it. Our Lord sanctifies the waters, and we take of this water and with it sanctify our place in this world. We do this so that when we engage in the struggle against our flesh and our passions, when we strive toward the Kingdom of Heaven, we do so having been washed clean, having driven off the power of death and the devil, and having been given access to streams of mystical life. We sanctify our world so that we can be sanctified as we live in it. We do this, because what comes after this will require God’s help.
We read in the gospels that after coming out of the waters of the Jordan our Lord was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to fast and to face temptation. So it is with us too. We are led quickly from this great feast into a season of fasting in which we will face many temptations.
The very first temptation that our Lord faced from the devil concerned the stomach. The devil knowing that our Lord had been fasting for forty days tells Him “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Our Lord rebukes the devil saying that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” At the Blessing of the Waters we hear from the Prophecy of Isaiah “For as the rain cometh down… and watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth.” These waters are given to us now that they might become spiritual food for us, bread that can fill us and preserve us against the temptations to come.
We receive this water we ask God for cleansing and healing, the destruction of evil powers, the deliverance from temptation, the grace of redemption, enlightenment – a fountain of life welling up in us so that we might be filled with holiness. And indeed this water can be all these things for you. It can carry you through the temptations which are coming to you. But like Israel of old, we are told that we must not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
We must always be diligent in our spiritual lives. The Nativity Fast has ended, but if we relax, if we let ourselves return to all our old habits, we will have an even harder time when the Lenten Fast begins. The grace of this Feast can feed your soul, it can sustain your spiritual efforts as we head into the Fast. But we must press on and not wander from the path the Church provides for us.
We must labor with the grace given us today. The Prophet Isaiah asks us: “Why do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labor for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good and let your soul delight in fatness.” Labor so that this sanctified water which rains down today may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater – the bread of the word of God which satisfies more than earthly bread.
Saint Paul tells us this very thing in the Epistle this morning: “For the Grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Allow this Grace of God, this salvation which appeared on this day in the River Jordan, this hope for everlasting life to flower within you by fortifying yourself against the temptations that are to come.