Homily on the Theophany
by St. Philaret (Voznesensky) of New York
On the day of the feast of Theophany–the Baptism of the Lord–it is not out of place to remember another baptism: that baptism which was performed over each of us Orthodox Christians, that baptism at which each of us, by the mouth of our godparents, gave a promise to God that he would always renounce Satan and his works and would always unite himself, “join himself” with Christ.
This, I repeat, is especially fitting for this present day. The solemn rite of the Great Sanctification of Water will be performed shortly. Its center, its main part, one could say, is the majestic prayer wherein the Lord is glorified and the grace of the Holy Spirit is called down upon the water being sanctified. This prayer begins with the beautiful words: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and no word sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Whoever has been at a performance of the mystery of Baptism and was present attentively, knows that the prayer at the sanctification of the water in which a man will be baptized begins with these same words, and the first part of this prayer is completely the same, both at the Great Sanctification of Water and at the performance of the mystery of Baptism. And only later, in the last part, does the prayer at the performance of the mystery of Baptism change, as applicable to this mystery, when a new human soul will be baptized.
And so, it would not do us any harm to remember those vows given at Baptism on behalf of each of us. When a man is baptized as an adult, as even now sometimes happens, and happened especially often in antiquity, he himself makes the vows on his own behalf; but if he is baptized in infancy, his godfather or godmother–his “sponsors,” as the Church calls them–pronounce these vows for him. And so these vows, in which a Christian has promised God to renounce Satan and all his works and to join himself, to unite himself with Christ, these vows are not only forgotten by people, but many in general know nothing about them or about the fact that these vows were pronounced for them and that they ought to think a little about how they must fulfill these vows.
And what if at the last day of the history of the human race on earth — on the day of the Dread Judgment — it turns out that a man (or his sponsors for him) made vows, and he does not even know what the vows were and what was promised? What will happen to such a man?
Think, brethren, about what it means to renounce Satan and all his works and to join oneself to Christ.
The times are such now that a God-opposing bustle, in which the enemy of the human race reigns, has taken possession of humanity and, as was said in olden times, forces almost all people “to dance to its tune.” All this bustle, of which our present life is composed, is a God-opposing bustle, in which there is no God, in which God’s enemy holds sway and rules. If we made a vow to renounce Satan and all his works, then, in fulfilling it, we ought to strive not to stifle our soul with this bustle, but to reject it and to remember how the Church says, “One thing is needful” — only one thing is necessary — and to remember that we must join ourselves with Christ, that is, not only fulfill His commandments, but also endeavor to unite ourselves with Him.
Think, then, about this, O Christian soul, on this day of the radiant and great feast; think and pray that the Lord send thee firm faith and the resolve to fulfill these vows, and not to be swallowed up by the bustle of the world and lose the tie with the Lord, with Whom thou didst promise to join thyself for ever.
Today’s feast is called the feast of the Lord’s Baptism or the feast of Theophany; but those who know well the church Typicon, know also that sometimes in this Typicon it is also called “the feast of the holy Theophanies” — in the plural number.
Why? Here is why: Of course, that which the singers sang about today — “God the Word appeared in the flesh to the human race” — is the center of the commemorations of the present feast day. The incarnate Son of God, of Whose birth, when He was born, only a very few knew, “appeared to the human race”; for His baptism is, as it were, His solemn inauguration of His ministry, which He then performed after that until His death and resurrection.
But at the very same time, the fact that precisely on this feast “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest,” as is sung in its troparion, is characteristic of today’s feast. All three Persons of the Holy Trinity appeared for the first time in their separateness, which is also why this feast, I repeat, is called “the feast of the holy Theophanies.” Men heard the voice of God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” (on Whom My favor rests); the Son of God accepted baptism from John (moreover, we know from the Gospel that John the Baptist was, as it were, at a loss when the Savior of the world came to him, and he attempted to restrain Him); and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended from the Father on the Son. In this way, “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest” for the first time, which is why the Church sings thus in the troparion, and why she also calls this feast “the feast of the holy Theophanies.”
Christ the Savior appeared in order to begin His saving ministry.
Here, not so long ago, when there was another great feast — the Nativity of Christ — we said that the Lord, by his nativity in a poor cave, when He deigned to be laid in a cattle manger, thereby emphatically rejected, as it were, all earthly glory, all earthly splendor and magnificence, for He did not deign to appear in royal chambers or rich palaces, but precisely in those poor and modest conditions. And thereby He immediately showed that He had brought to the earth a new principle, the principle of humility.
Look, then, how He Himself, so to say, is true to Himself, how even now on today’s great feast He institutes the very same principle of humility manifestly and undoubtedly for us. For whither did He come? To the Jordan. Why? To be baptized by John. But sinners came to John; they confessed their sins to him and were baptized. But He was without sin, “could not be touched by sin,” was absolutely free of it and pure; yet nonetheless, He humbly stands in line with other sinners, as if He were in need of this cleansing washing with water. But we know that the water did not cleanse Him, the most holy and sinless One; but it was He who sanctified the water by deigning to be washed by it, as was sung today during the sanctification of the water: “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.” And so, Jesus Christ brought the principle of humility to the earth and was true to it throughout the course of His whole life. But that is not all. He has also left us this testament: Come “and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
Remember one more radiant, joyful, spring feast — the feast of the Annunciation.
Here the most blessed Virgin Mary hears the good tidings from the Archangel how the incarnation of God will be accomplished through her. What does her most holy, most pure and blameless soul say when she came to her relative, Elizabeth, in order to share her joy with her? She only says: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate [humility] of his handmaiden.” This humility was also the beauty of her spirit. From the very account of the Annunciation, we know that the Archangel appeared to her at that moment when she, having read the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the incarnation of God from a virgin, was not even thinking to apply this to herself, but only thought in the depth of her humility: “How joyful I would be if I were the least handmaid of that blessed virgin.” …And here stands the Archangel Gabriel before her with his good tidings. The Lord, meek and humble Himself, regarded her humility.
He also enjoined humility on us, contrary to the principles of pride and self-love by which humanity today breathes.
Look, why are there so many disagreements among us, both within the enclosure of the Church and in parishes? Because everywhere men made red-hot by self-love are clashing; but if that humility to which the Lord calls us would be found in us, none of this would happen.
Let us, then, brethren, learn from our Savior, who as the least sinner came to John in order to be baptized by him; let us learn from Him this God-beloved and fragrant virtue, without which, as the holy fathers have said, no other virtue whatsoever can be perfect.