On this great feast of Theophany, we celebrate Christ’s baptism, when the voice of the Father identified Him as the Son of God and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. Epiphany reveals that the Savior Who appears from the waters of the Jordan to illumine our world of darkness is the God-Man, a Person of the Holy Trinity. He is baptized to restore us, and the creation itself, to the ancient glory for which we were created.
Tragically, our first parents turned away from their high calling and ushered in the realm of corruption that we know all too well. God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin when they left paradise after disregarding Him. Through their disobedience, they had become aware that they were naked and were cast into the world as we know it. Their nakedness showed that they had repudiated their vocation to become like God in holiness. Having stripped themselves of their original glory, they were reduced to mortal flesh and destined for slavery to their passions and the grave. Because of them, the creation itself was “subjected to futility…” (Rom. 8:20).
As we prepared for Theophany, we heard this hymn: “Make ready, O Zebulon, and prepare, O Nephtali, and you, River Jordan, cease your flow and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. And you, Adam, rejoice with the first mother, and hide not yourselves as you did of old in paradise; for having seen you naked, He appeared to clothe you with the first robe. Yea, Christ has appeared desiring to renew the whole creation.” If it seems strange to think of Christ being baptized in order to clothe Adam and Eve, remember St. Paul’s teaching that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), In baptism, Jesus Christ clothes us with a garment of light, restoring us to our original vocation to become like God in holiness. He saves us from the nakedness and vulnerability of being enslaved to our own passions and to the fear of the grave. Through His and our baptism, He makes us participants in His restoration and fulfillment of the human person. He is baptized in order to save Adam and Eve, all of their descendants, and the entire creation, fulfilling the glorious purposes for which He breathed life into us in the first place.
That certainly does not mean, however, that the rest of our lives after baptism will be perfect in every way without pain, disease, death, and other forms of personal brokenness. In the aftermath of Christ’s birth, the wicked Herod had all the young boys in the region of Bethlehem murdered. Matthew’s gospel reports that, after the Forerunner’s arrest for prophetically denouncing the sins of the royal family, the Lord went to “Galilee of the Gentiles” to begin His public ministry in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “’the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned’” (Matt. 4:15-16).
Those who suffered under the oppression of Herod and the Roman Empire knew all too well about darkness and death. The victims of war, terrorism, persecution, and other crimes around the world today certainly do also. The same is true for people who mourn those lost in the pandemic and who are overcome by economic and social hardship. If we acknowledge the truth about our own passionate thoughts, words, and deeds, we will see that in many ways we still prefer the spiritual darkness of sin to a robe of light. We would rather follow our first parents in choosing nakedness and weakness over the divine glory and strength of the New Adam.
The Forerunner called people to repent in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, Whose preaching began with a similar theme: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). We do not like being told to repent out of pride and perhaps a fear of punishment. True repentance is, however, fundamentally positive in nature because it calls us to reorient ourselves toward truth and reality. It invites us to leave behind the darkness as we enter into the light. It challenges us to abandon the sad anxiety of naked vulnerability for the joy of being fully clothed as the beloved sons and daughters of God.
True repentance requires offering every dimension of our life to Christ for healing and transformation. That is one of the reasons that we bless houses with holy water in the weeks following Theophany. By being baptized in the Jordan, Christ made water holy by fulfilling its God-intended purposes of giving life, cleansing, and satisfying our deepest thirst. Holy water manifests Christ’s blessing of the entire creation, extending even to the small details of our daily lives. Our Lord’s baptism reveals that nothing is intrinsically profane, evil, or cut off from God. He enables all reality to shine with the light of holiness.
In order to celebrate Theophany, we pursue the calling to become radiant with the divine energies in every aspect of our lives, including especially those we are tempted to dismiss as intrinsically profane. Christ calls us to shine brilliantly with the garment of light that He has given us. Instead of sneaking around naked in the garden like the old Adam, we must pursue the struggle to embrace the glory of our salvation personally and intentionally. That is what repentance is all about, and no one else can do it for us. We must reorient our lives toward God, if we are to turn away from the darkness of sin and enter into the light of Christ.
At Epiphany we celebrate that the eternal Son of God has humbled Himself to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan so that we may participate in His divine glory. He is baptized in order to save Adam and Eve, all their descendants, and the entire creation. He has clothed us in baptism in order to cover our nakedness, which had degraded us as slaves to passion and mortality in a world of corruption. Theophany reminds us that we have already put on Christ like a garment and been restored to our ancient dignity as His sons and daughters. Now we must actually live as those who have put Him on by conforming our character to His. Now we must shine from the depths of our souls with the holy glory that the God-Man has shared with us. Now we must bear witness in our own lives that that the prophecy really has been fulfilled: “[T]he people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” In order to celebrate this great feast, we must become living epiphanies of the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.
Rev. Dr. Philip LeMasters is Professor of Religion at McMurray University in Abilene, Texas.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.