Faith and worship

The Lord is everything to me. He is the strength of my heart and the light of my intellect. He inclines my heart to everything good; He strengthens it; He also gives me good thoughts; He is my rest and my joy; He is my faith hope and love.

St. John of Kronstadt

Recent sermon

The Feast of Theophany

6th January 2022 (sermon from 9th January 2022)

Today we are keeping the feast of Theophany.

The word Theophany means “Revelation of God;” Theophany commemorates the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God when Jesus was baptized. Those present heard the Father’s voice from Heaven, saw the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and could see Jesus in the flesh, whom God confirmed to be His Son with His voice. This is expressed very clearly in the Troparion of the feast:

When Thou, O Lord was baptized in the Jordan / the worship of the Trinity was made manifest / for the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee / and called You His beloved Son. / And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, / confirmed His word as sure and steadfast. / O Christ, our God, who has appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

The event of Theophany is depicted on the icon in the centre of the church. Christ is purposely depicted with little or no clothing. In the beginning, man and woman were created together in God’s image. They were both beautiful, and while they lacked physical garments, they were clothed in the glory of the “image” and “likeness” of God. However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them garments of skin to wear (which symbolizes the sinful tendency that now obscures our true nature). Their natural beauty was transformed into an object of shame. Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.

Jesus Christ has become the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22). In shame and nakedness, Adam hid himself from God. Christ comes in His majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him to receive baptism from St. John the Baptist. This is expressed in Canticle 8 from Mattins of the Forefeast of Theophany:

With mighty voice let us ascribe praise to the Master. He is come and is made manifest. He goes down into the waters; He who covers the heaven with clouds is stripped bare and baptized, cleansing us who sing: Let the whole of creation bless and exalt Him above all for ever.

The event of Theophany is depicted on the icon in the centre of the church. Christ is purposely depicted with little or no clothing. In the beginning, man and woman were created together in God’s image. They were both beautiful, and while they lacked physical garments, they were clothed in the glory of the “image” and “likeness” of God. However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them garments of skin to wear (which symbolizes the sinful tendency that now obscures our true nature). Their natural beauty was transformed into an object of shame. Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.

Jesus Christ has become the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22). In shame and nakedness, Adam hid himself from God. Christ comes in His majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him to receive baptism from St. John the Baptist. This is expressed in Canticle 8 from Mattins of the Forefeast of Theophany:

With mighty voice let us ascribe praise to the Master. He is come and is made manifest. He goes down into the waters; He who covers the heaven with clouds is stripped bare and baptized, cleansing us who sing: Let the whole of creation bless and exalt Him above all for ever.

St. John the Baptist is puzzled because Jesus comes to him for baptism, John’s baptism is a sign of repentance so we can understand why John asks “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why was Christ baptized if He had no sin?

Again, if we look at the icon we see that Christ’s hands are blessing the water of the Jordan. While Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, it was really the Jordan and all of creation that was baptized in Christ. As Canticle Four of Compline for the Forefeast of Theophany states:
At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heaven enlightened, and mankind was set loose from the bitter tyranny of the enemy.

We see the beginning of a new creation in the events of Theophany. Things are being set right. Christ has come not only to cleanse and restore mankind, but to adopt us as heirs into His Kingdom. And when we receive His glory, not only are we redeemed, but we draw all of creation with us into the final restoration. That is why “creation groans” in eager expectation, awaiting the glorification of the children of God. (Romans 8:22).

At the bottom of the icon we can see strange creatures in the water, these creatures represent the Jordan River and the seas and call to mind the Psalms which are read during the Hours service for the Eve of Theophany:
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you they were afraid; the very deep trembled (Psalm 76:16)
This verse tells us that creation recognises its creator.

There is another way to understand the meaning of this image. At the time of Jesus baptism, the pagan Romans and much of the Roman world worshipped sacred rivers and springs. Here in Bath there was a shrine to the goddess Sulis. One of the ways people made offerings to the goddess was to throw valuable objects into the water, in expectation that the goddess would either reward you, or punish your enemies. Worshipping created things is a form of idolatry and so we can understand that by doing this the people of the ancient world caused a kind of spiritual pollution of water. The water is not itself polluted in the way we would think of this today, but its true purpose has been distorted. Christ is blessing and cleansing the water through his baptism and as creation recognises its creator, in doing so the spiritual pollution, in the form of the strange creatures is chased away.

The pagans believed that by following certain prescribed methods; using the correct form of words and following the correct ritual, they would produce the desired effect. As Christians our approach is altogether different. We do not expect to “switch on” God’s grace as we switch on an electric light. One can never be sure that God will do this or that. You may hope for it and pray for something, but God is free. And this freedom manifests in all of His actions.

At the conclusion of the Liturgy we will celebrate the Great Blessing of Water. This prayer is not a “spell” that will transform the water into something “magical”, we are offering the water to God in the expectation that it will become a channel for God’s grace in our lives, holy water is a sign that every dimension of creation is to be made holy and restored to God’s original purpose. Although we pollute water, spiritually and materially, and although we will sometimes live in fear of storms and floods, God created water to sustain us and to bring life into the world. Through his baptism Christ has restored water to its intended purpose by making it holy and this is His intention for every part of our lives, if we are willing to accept this.

At the end of the service for blessing the water you are invited to drink the holy water and fill a bottle to take home with you, more than this we are responding to Jesus Christ’s call to be a source of blessing to the world by sharing his life and becoming more like Him, restoring the image and likeness of God in humility and faith. We do this through thirsting to co-operate with our Lord through love for God and for our neighbour and receiving spiritual nourishment in return.

I will conclude with words taken from the blessing service:

Incline Thine ear and hearken unto us, O Lord who hast accepted baptism in the Jordan and hast sanctified the waters, bless us who by the bowing of our heads outwardly show Thee our servitude; and count us worthy to be filled with Thy sanctification through the partaking of this water and being sprinkled with it, and may it bring us, O Lord, health of soul and body.

Amen.