In the West, and even among us Byzantines living in the West, we have a tendency to treat the time from Christmas until Theophany rather like a diminuendo – which, in music, is a gradual softening and decrease in intensity, which is a wonderful way to end a lullaby intended to put us to sleep, but maybe not the best way to regard the great feast of Theophany. What I mean is, we treat Christmas as the climax of the season and Theophany or Epiphany as an addendum, when, in fact, this is backwards. In history and in liturgy this time is actually more of a crescendo – a gradual increase in excitement and intensity until it reaches Theophany – which is its climax – in which worship of the Trinity is revealed.
Look how softly we begin – with the birth of a baby in humble circumstance. His mother lays him not in a bed, but in a manger, not in some royal palace but in a cave. He is attended not by courtiers but by shepherds and later by wise men from the East. These were some of the few who knew who he was at all – and they were able to see it only with the eyes of faith overlooking the humility of his circumstance.
So, yes, the Lord is revealed at his nativity, but his revelation begins in obscurity. He is revealed quietly and to few. For many years, the mystery is contemplated in silence in the hearts of those who know before any part of it is revealed to the world. The prophets prophesied his coming long before his birth, but the true meaning of their prophecy was known to but few.
Eight days after his birth, as we remembered on January 1st, he humbly undergoes the circumcision that all Jewish boys undergo. To all appearances, he is in this like any other Jewish baby boy.
The feasts of the Nativity and the Circumcision emphasize, I think, his humanity – but the feast of Theophany reveals Christ to all to be the Son of the Father and reveals the Holy Spirit, who descends upon him like a dove.
Some knew from the beginning, of course, that Jesus is Lord – Mary knew and Joseph knew – having been told by an angel of the Lord. Christ’s divinity is present at every moment of his human existence, but sometimes it seems obscured to those without ears to hear – like a subtle musical theme underneath larger movements, which builds and builds throughout the piece until it is played loudly and clearly at times such as his baptism and his transfiguration and his resurrection.
One who reveals from the beginning that Jesus is Lord is John. Though John admits that he himself did not know Jesus as the Son of God until he saw the Spirit descend upon him like a dove (John 1:32-34), yet at the same time he reveals to his mother Elizabeth that Jesus is Lord even while both he and Jesus are in the wombs of their mothers. Jesus first approached John while they were both unborn in their mothers’ wombs and John, being a prophet of God most high, leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, thus proclaiming to her that the unborn Jesus Christ is Lord (Luke 1:41-43).
You see, prophecy is God speaking to us through his prophets, but not always with the prophets’ own understanding. The unborn John prophesies, but did not yet know himself.
Again witness how quietly the theophany of the Lord begins when Jesus and John are babies – and yet it grows and grows – builds and builds like a musical motif in a complex composition, until it is revealed and known to more and more – to John himself, and then, through John, to his disciples, and now, through the apostles, to the whole Church and to all of us.
John, the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, is a prophet. Among those born of women, there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). He is a prophet of prophets – a prophet whose prophecy was prophesied (Matt 3:3). John was a prophet even before he was born.
And when Jesus comes to him again when they are both men, he prophecies again, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Now, this proclamation is heard by all. Whereas before, only his mother Elizabeth could feel and understand John’s hidden prophetic leap. Now, God is manifest to all. It is theophany! It is like the climax or culmination of a musical composition. What was building up quietly is now fully and loudly expressed to all.
John is the prophet through whom this revelation takes place. It is John who sees the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove (John 1:32). And John thereby recognizes Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:34), for he hears the voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). It is a prophet who can hear the word of God. A prophet recognizes the melody of the Lord in the midst of the cacophony of the world.
Many reduce prophecy in their understanding to the foretelling of future events, but this is not even half of what prophecy is.
There’s a popular expression with a long history and many variations that one hears from time to time, which is better: “The prophet comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” This certainly holds true if we examine the effect that prophecy has on people. John’s baptism was a comfort to those who repented of that which had been afflicting them. And his preaching afflicted, for example, the all-too-comfortable Herod who was unwilling to repent of his incestuous relationship (Mark 6:17-18). John was not afraid to point out that the fact of Herod’s transgression, even though it ultimately cost him his life to do so. A prophet always speaks the truth, which does often afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, because a prophet is one who speaks for God – who speaks God’s words to each time and place as God intends them to be heard and understood.
Prophecy is speaking the word of God. For example, the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says, “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). And to Ezekiel he says, “You shall speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). We are lost without prophecy, for our faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17), which we can only hear through prophecy.
So, let us hear the word of God. We have now already heard the climax of the composition – we have celebrated Theophany and witnessed the revelation of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now it is time to ask, “What now? What next? What can follow this greatest of revelations?” Well, let us continue listen to word of God – to the preaching of Jesus, who Theophany teaches us is himself the Word of God:
Today, “Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the first words of Christ’s preaching and with them, he pays homage to John, his baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, his forerunner, who made straight his way. The words that Jesus preaches directly quote the preaching of John, who went before him to prepare his way. Jerome points out that, by quoting John in this way, Jesus shows that he is the Son of the same God whose prophet John was. There is one God and one word of God, known to us by prophecy, who now preaches to us one word: repent. This one word will comfort us if we are afflicted and afflict us if we are comfortable.
Theophany is coming.
The liturgical prayer of our Church is preparing us for the coming of this great feast. Last night at Vespers we sang:
“Resplendent is the feast which is passed, but more glorious is the present day. On that day, the Magi adored the savior; on this, the glorious servant baptizes the Master. There the shepherds sang in amazement; here, the voice of the Father proclaims Him to be the Only-begotten Son.” (Doxastichon of the Pre-feast).
It is partly to learn from these hymns of the Church that it is good for us to pray Vespers and Matins – especially for Sundays and feasts. Even when we’re unable to come to church, we can learn to pray Vespers in our homes. Eastern Christian Publications has a free daily subscription service (Byzantine Daily Office) that sends an email to you every day with that day’s prayers. This makes it so simple. You don’t even have to look up the prayers. One of my former rectors at the seminary, Fr. John Petro, always used to say that if you want to know what we believe as Byzantine Catholics, pray our liturgies. These are our best catechesis. We pray our faith. These hymns teach us our faith.
So, what does this hymn teach us?
Theophany is coming.
And it is more glorious than Christmas. But surely not? Everyone knows that Christmas and Easter are the two biggest feasts, right? Certainly, these are the only two times per year that many Catholics deem it at all necessary to enter a church. Yet, here we are singing, “Resplendent is the feast [of the Nativity] which is passed, but more glorious is [Theophany].” Maybe this is hyperbole. Or maybe we mean what we pray.
With Christmas so recent, it is striking that today we turn to the gospel of Mark. Because Mark contains no infancy narrative – no nativity – no Christmas. He begins his Gospel not with Christmas, but with Theophany – with John and the baptism of Jesus. And he has the boldness to tell us – in Mark 1:1 – that this is “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Here is where it all begins, according to Mark. Doesn’t he know that the gospel begins with the baby in the manger? That is, according to Luke and Matthew. While John the Theologian begins his gospel before the beginning of time. But Mark – Mark places it here in the river Jordan with John the baptizer, the forerunner, the messenger, the angel, the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
But just a moment. This figure of John the Baptist represents enormous things. These words about him belong not to Mark but to the prophets Malachi and Isaiah.
Interestingly, if we read the beginning of Mark without the punctuation (and you should know that it was written without punctuation), it could be read like this: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah.” I’m just playing with words here, but this reveals a truth: Mark is not writing the beginning of the gospel, he’s reading it – he’s seeing it where God planted it long ago. Long before Christ’s birth and encompassing all in between, his gospel begins. And still, it begins with Theophany.
Theophany is coming.
And it is so great in part because here stands this figure of John the Forerunner, standing between the two Testaments, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New, himself prophesied by the Old and now proclaiming the all-powerfulness of the one who comes after him – of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
Let’s consider a moment the two prophets Mark cites as foretelling John the Forerunner – Malachi and Isaiah.
It was Isaiah who said, “A voice cries in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord – make straight his path” (Is 40:3). Isaiah may have had in mind the road back to Judah from the Babylonian captivity, but the Holy Spirit who inspires Isaiah also knew of the spiritual meaning Mark would later find – that in the desert wilderness of repentance we will find a way out of our captivity to sin. There we will prepare a way for the Lord to enter into our hearts.
Yet by what strange means comes this grace of repentance. How unexpectedly our Lord finds a way into our hearts. That is, he comes in flesh. He comes in the flesh on Christmas and is baptized in the flesh on Theophany. By word and sacrament, by baptism with water and with fire, in the Spirit and in the flesh, our Lord joins with us. In the same passage, Isaiah goes on to observe that “all flesh is grass” (Is 40:6). “The grass withers, the flower fades” he writes, “but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:7,8). Yet, the word of our God is become the grass. That is, the word, the logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. That is, God has become man. Which was more than even the prophets could foretell.
It was Malachi who said, “Behold, I send my messenger [or, my angel] to prepare the way before me” (Mal 3:1). Malachi may have had in mind a messenger who would purify Israel so that they could again offer temple sacrifice in righteousness. Indeed, he may have had himself in mind – Malachi means “my messenger.” But the Holy Spirit who inspires Malachi also knew that a new messenger – John – was coming who would prepare the way for the coming of Christ, the high priest and the final and perfect sacrifice.
Malachi goes on to say that when the Lord comes, he will be like a refiner’s fire (3:2). “Who can endure the day of his coming?” he asks, “and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal 3:2). Can you? Can I? John the forerunner himself was not so sure he could do so.
After all, if “all flesh is grass,” as Isaiah writes, and if the Lord is like “a refiner’s fire” as Malachi writes, then it is no wonder that John shrank from the Lord’s request for baptism. Because, what happens when you bring withered grass against a flame? A hymn from last night’s Vespers puts these ideas together, having John say to Jesus: “I do not dare to put straw to the fire.” You see, though not everyone understood who Jesus was – especially at the beginning – John recognized him. If he didn’t, he would not have said, as we will hear on Theophany, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14). John was a prophet, like Isaiah and Malachi before him. He knew to whom he spoke. And how can you baptize with water the one who separated the waters?
Prophets are not – as some suppose – mere fortune tellers. They’re not among us simply to foretell future events. Rather – they speak to us with the voice of God. They are a means of God’s self-revelation. And on Theophany John reveals for all time something of who Christ is. He sees and bears witness that the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove and he hears and bears witness that Jesus is the Son of God who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire (John 1:32-34). He hears not angels, as did the shepherds in Bethlehem, but by the Jordan he hears the Father’s own voice proclaiming Jesus to be his beloved Son. This is Theophany. The manifestation of God. And this is what makes it glorious and more glorious.
Theophany is coming.
Therefore, Repent. “Repent” will be the first word that Jesus preaches after his baptism (Matt 4:17). Let us do so, and prepare the way of the Lord in our own hearts.
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