Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thoughts on Theophany

Here's a cross-post from May of 2006, from a blog I used to read alot back when it was fairly helpful to me. The blog is somewhat less helpful to me these days, so I read it less often, but I will always be particularly grateful for this post - and I go back to it often.

Much of what is said here was said in a different way to the children of our parish (by the same priest at the same parish he mentions, now my parish) at the Great Blessing of Waters, which was held just prior to church school last night.

12 May 2006
the God for Whom the waters do not part

"... I was attending, off and on, a little Orthodox parish in St. Paul, Holy Trinity. The priest, Father Jonathan Proctor, had been a friend to me over several years, and had seen me through some difficult personal messes and my on again, off again flirtation with Orthodoxy. His place in life at this time was different than mine. He and his wife had just lost a one month old child. When she was born they were told she would not live long. The best series of sermons I have ever heard in my life came from Fr. Jonathan over the course of 2 to three months after the death of his little one. Please do not think me crass for saying this. A sermon is just a sermon. It is not a human life. All decent men would rather have the little girl than the great sermons. Also, please don't think that I suggest that there is a causal relationship between suffering and wisdom. Some suffer for nothing. The death of a human being is always tragic. Nothing good comes from it. Though good may come from the virtues found in suffering through it. But Orthodox are not spiritual pragmatists. Give us the child, we will worry about lessons later. But the fact is that children die, and Christians suffer, and the suffering of one priest bore messages about Christianity which will shape me for the rest of my life.

On a Sunday after Theophany, I heard Fr. Jonathan give a homily that has rarely left my mind since then. I will not go into all the details here, but I will cover the central detail, it goes something like this:

Father Jonathan asked us to consider Jesus' baptism. Consider who Jesus is. We know that He is fully God. We know that He is rightly called prophet, priest, and king. We know that He not only represents, but in a certain sense is the true and holy Israel of God. It should not be lost on us that God's people are now called "the Body of Christ." This Man who is God walks up to the River Jordan. And what happens? What should we expect to happen? Well, a man who is versed in the Old Testament and who also knows Who this Jesus is might have a very reasonable expectation. In the Old Testament when the people of God, the Israel of God, come up to the waters while running from pharaoh, the waters part. In the OT when the prophet of God comes up to the river Jordan, the waters part. In the OT when the ark of the covenant, which was God present to His people, came to the river Jordan, the waters part. This man well versed in the OT, when seeing Jesus come to the waters should have every expectation that they too will part. Jesus is the fullness of the presence of God, He is the fulfillment of all prophecy, He is the true Israel of God, all people of God are in Him. But the waters do not part. Instead, God enters into the chaos and death of the water, and He is covered. With Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. God is now not seeking a people for whom to part waters. He is seeking a community of the drowned.

When you enter through baptism and chrismation the Orthodox faith, and are therefore baptized into Christ, do not think that God is in the business of going about separating waters for you. No, this is not the path you have chosen. You have chosen to hold fast to the One for whom the waters do not part. You die with Him, in Him, through Him, as Him, for Him. Orthodox Christianity is the exact opposite of "health and wealth" spiritual economics, which infects not just Pentecostalism, but much of American Christianity. God will heal whom He will, God will allow the deaths of those whom He will, but in a real and certain sense, friends of God, as those who are the dead in Christ, you have given up any right to claim that God must part waters for you. As Bonhoeffer said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A dead man can claim nothing as his own.

The mystery takes us further. That day not only does Jesus come up to the water and the waters stay still to swallow Him up, but it is this very day that for the first time God reveals Himself in His fullness: Father, Son, Holy Spirit to humankind. The threefold nature of the Godhead is revealed to us at the moment in which God reveals Himself as the God for Whom the waters do not part. In the feast of Theophany we learn that God reveals Himself formally and most clearly, in the very midst of human suffering. Indeed, we may even speak with St. Cyril of this mystery of the suffering of the impassible God.

Throughout Christian history so many faithful have been led to seek some sort of magic help potion from God or his agents, or at the very least thought that God would give them a statistical advantage, as if they were a bit more likely to have things go well if God were in their corner. Both are lies. Of course we pray that God bless us, and we have faith that he will. But we may seek blessing in a different spirit when the waters have already passed over our heads. Most Holy Theotokos, joy of all who sorrow, pray for us.