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.