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Meditation on the Epiphany

5 January 2023

A monk of the Eastern Church*

Epiphany was the first public manifestation of Christ. At the time of His birth, our Lord was revealed to a few privileged people. Today, all those who surround John, that is to say his own disciples and the crowd that has come to the banks of the Jordan, witness a more solemn manifestation of Jesus Christ. What does this manifestation consist of? It is made up of two aspects. On the one hand there is the humility, represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son. We shall look at these aspects more closely. But first of all, let us bear this in mind: every manifestation of Jesus Christ, both in history and in the inner life of each man, is simultaneously a manifestation of humility and of glory. Whoever tries to separate these two aspects of Christ commits an error which falsifies the whole of spiritual life. I cannot approach the glorified Christ without, at the same time, approaching the humiliated Christ, nor the humiliated Christ without approaching the glorified Christ. If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing him, whom Augustine delighted to call Christus humilis, and, in the same upsurge, worshipping him who is also God, King and Conqueror. This is the first lesson of Epiphany.

The aspect of humility in Epiphany consists of the fact that Our Lord submits to John’s baptism of repentance. John himself refuses to begin with, but Jesus insists: ‘Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ [Matth. 3, 13-15]. Obviously, Jesus had no need to be purified by John, but this baptism conferred by the Precursor, this baptism for the remission of sins, was a preparation for the messianic kingdom; and Jesus, before proclaiming the coming of this kingdom, wished to go through all those preparatory phases which he himself was to ‘consummate’. Being himself the fulness, he wished to take into himself all that was still incomplete and unfinished. But in receiving the Johannine baptism, Jesus did more than solemnly approve and confirm a rite before transforming it – more than consummate the imperfect into the perfect. He who was without sin made himself the bearer of all our sins, of the sin of the whole world; and it is in the name of all sinners that Jesus made a public act of repentance. Moreover, Jesus wished to teach us the necessity of patience and conversion; before we can draw near to Christian baptism itself, we must receive John’s baptism, that means we have to go through a change of spirit, through an inner catastrophe. We must experience real contrition for our sinfulness. As far as we ourselves are concerned, repentance is the aspect of humility in Epiphany. And here we must go beyond the limited horizon of the Johannine baptism and remind ourselves that we have been baptized in Christ. Christian baptism has washed and purified us. It has abolished original sin** in us and made a new creature of us. We were probably infants when we were baptized; baptismal grace was then a divine response, not to our personal request, but to the faith of those who brought us to baptism and also to the faith of the whole Church when it accepted us. This baptismal grace was, then, in some way provisional and conditional: it needed us, of our own free choice as we grew up and became conscious, to confirm the act of our baptism, not only of Jesus’s baptism, but also of our own. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to revive the grace which was conferred on us. For the sacramental graces, even if interrupted and suspended by sin, can become alive in us again, if we turn sincerely to God. At this feast of Epiphany, let us ask God to wash us again – spiritually, not actually – in the waters of baptism; let us drown the old, the sinful, creature in them, for baptism is a mystical death; let us cross the Red Sea which separates captivity from freedom and let us immerse ourselves with Jesus in the Jordan to be washed not by the Precursor but by Jesus himself.

The day after Christmas is consecrated to the ‘synaxis of the Blessed Virgin Mary: all believers are invited to assemble in honour of her who made the Incarnation humanly possible. In the same way, the day after Epiphany (January 7) is consecrated to the ‘synaxis’ of John the Precursor, who baptized Jesus and, in a way, was the agent in presenting him to the world. In the chants for this feast, at vespers and matins, the Church multiplies the praises of the Precursor: ‘Thou who art Light in the flesh…filled with the Spirit…swallow of grace…who hast appeared as the last of the prophets… and the greatest among them…’. The very richness of these praises makes it a little difficult for us, perhaps, to discern clearly what it is that we, as men, have to learn from John. During the course of the liturgical year, we shall have other opportunities to return to the person and the ministry of this man who was not only the Precursor and the Baptist, but also the Friend of the Bridegroom, the new Elijah, and the martyr who gave his life for the divine law. Today it will be enough for us to concentrate on two facets of John’s ministry, and these are indicated by the gospel and epistle which are read at the liturgy.

The epistle, already read at Nones on the eve of Epiphany (Acts 19, 1-8) tells of Paul’s meeting at Ephesus with the disciples who had received only John’s baptism. Paul explains to them that John conferred a baptism of repentance on the people so that they might believe in him who was to come. But Paul baptized these Ephesians ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Paul’s words point exactly to the greatness and the limitations of John’s ministry. On the one hand, we must receive John’s baptism of penitence, that is to say, listen to John when he tells us what the conditions are for entry into the messianic kingdom and allow ourselves to be touched by his call to repentance. On the other hand, John’s baptism is not sufficient. We must go to Jesus himself. We must be baptized in the name of our Saviour and in the Holy Spirit. This does not simply involve the sacramental rites. What matters is our constant inner attitude. I cannot go to Jesus if I have not listened to John’s voice, and if I have not repented. But I cannot remain in the state of repentance that John preached: the new justice that I must move on to is that which Jesus alone procures.

The nature of this new justice is indicated in the gospel read at the liturgy (John 1, 29-34). This passage, which describes Jesus’s baptism by the Precursor, begins with the following words: ‘John seeth Jesus coming unto him and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’. This is the second facet of John’s ministry: not only does he preach conversion and confer a baptism of repentance, but he shows us Jesus as the Lamb of God and the propitiation for all our sins. John declares that Jesus accomplishes what the baptism of repentance cannot do: the Saviour takes upon his own shoulders the sin of the world and thus cleanses men. John’s ministry, therefore, will only be effectual for us if it produces these two results: first that it rouses us to repentance, and then that it shows us the Lamb who offers himself in sacrifice as reparation for our sins. The ministry, or, as we might say, the gospel of the Precursor has a third aspect which will be revealed to us later: the relationship between the Bridegroom and the friend of the Bridegroom. But this aspect is not yet made explicit in the feast of Epiphany. What the ‘synaxis’ of the Precursor suggests to us today is the breaking of our hearts which repentance demands, and the act of faith by which we entrust our sins to the Lamb of God, and inwardly experience redemption.

 

 

 

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