We are at the midpoint, more or less, of a deeply festive season. We have welcomed the Infant Jesus into the world, in the cold silence of a Bethlehem night. We have joined the shepherds and the angels, the Magi and the beasts of the field, in adoration of God made flesh. In the joy of His coming, we forgo our usual fasting. Our celebration is deep, and heartfelt.
Yet no sooner have we celebrated the Nativity then we see disquieting signs, reminders that the Incarnation is but the first step in an arduous journey of salvation. We are reminded of this on December 27, when we remember the Protomartyr, the Deacon Stephen. On the Sunday after the Nativity, we read of the heartbreaking slaughter of the 10,000 innocents by Herod. And next Sunday, we will celebrate a feast of a different character, that of the Theophany of Christ.
In fact, in the early Church there was only one winter feast, that of the Theophany. For us today, the Nativity and the Theophany are like bookends, bracketing a season of joy and celebration, before we begin a period of ordinary time that leads us inevitably into the somber reflection of Great Lent. We might ask: what links these events? On the surface, there does not seem to be a connection. What does a new born infant have to do with the baptism of the fully grown God-man, Christ? And what does any of it have to do with us?
The answer is not found in the way we see Christmas celebrated around us, in a society which does not celebrate the baptism of Christ at all. It is only in Orthodoxy, in the Church itself, that a true and complete understanding of these events is found. And what the Church tells us is that the joy of this season does not derive from gifts we receive, but rather in what we sacrificially give. Christ, as always, is our unparalleled example. By being born of the Virgin, Christ underwent what the Fathers called kenosis, the complete emptying of Himself. The Son of God consented to a birth in rude surroundings. He entered the world not as a King, but as an infant, dependent upon his mother for care, and upon his guardian, Joseph, for protection. Where the angels sang before his throne in the heavenly courts, he is now surrounded by farm animals. The Incarnation was a voluntary denial of self that led directly to the cross. Even in the Nativity icon we see that link:
Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is born in a cave. After His crucifixion, he will be laid again into another cave, a tomb.
When He is born, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes which binds the limbs of the child. After his crucifixion, he is wrapped again in cloth.
When he is born, he is laid in a manger, a receptacle for holding food. He will indeed become food for us, and his Body and his Blood sustains us in every Liturgy.
But understanding that the child has embarked on a road to the cross does not lessen our joy. As St. Athanasius the Great exclaimed, God became man so that man might become God. The Incarnation is the opening of the door of salvation. It is the only door to salvation, and for that we are filled with gratitude. Yet it is a door which we must choose to enter. The mere existence of an open door means nothing unless we avail ourselves of the road which is offered. And it is in the Theophany that we begin to see that clearly.
It is the universal teaching of the Fathers that Christ submitted to baptism in obedience, in order to fulfill all things. He had no sin for which he needed to repent. Unlike the throngs of others who came for the baptism of John, He had nothing to confess. He needed no forgiveness. Yet in his obedience, the Trinity was revealed, as His Father declared that Jesus was His son, in which he was well pleased, and The Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. The Godhead became apparent. From that, we understand that our own obedience is demanded.
There is an Old Testament story that helps remind us of the link between God’s work, and our own obedience. In the book of 2 Kings, we find the story of Namaan. Namaan was the powerful commander of the army of the King of Syria. At the height of his career, however, he developed the dread disease of leprosy. His wife had a slave girl, an Israelite, who told her mistress about the wonderworking prophet of God, Elisha. He, the slave girl declared, could cure Namaan of leprosy. Word got to the Syrian king, and he sent his commander to the King of Israel, carrying enormous treasure, asking that Namaan be cured.
The King of Israel misunderstood the request, thinking that he was supposed to somehow cure Namaan. Scripture tells us that the King fell into despair, tearing his clothes. The King, you see, failed to see the request through spiritual eyes, but instead interpreted the event through the eyes of the world. He thought that the King of Syria was hoping to start a quarrel, and begin a war which Israel would lose. He did not stop to think that the request was a genuine plea for assistance, nor did he think to send the man to the Prophet Elisha, who lived within his borders.
Elisha, however, heard of the demand. He sent a message to his king, and told him to send Namaan to him. The general came to his house, with his soldiers and his chariots and all of the signs of his power. Namaan was a proud man, and a powerful one. It was not in his nature to approach Elisha in humility. In his mind, he just had this one little problem – leprosy – and if he could just be cured of it, he would go back to being the powerful man he had always been.
Standing in front of the rude house with his servants and his soldiers, what Namaan expected was that Elisha would come out to where he was impatiently waiting, wave his arms around, call on an obedient God and – viola! – he would be cured. He wanted it done quickly, and in accordance with his schedule, at his convenience. Namaan was used to getting things done as he wished.
But God had other plans. “Go,” Elisha told Namaan, “and wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed.”
Now, I have to tell you, the Jordan is not the world’s most attractive river. It is not huge and grand like other great rivers, nor is it as pristine and delightful as a mountain stream. Frankly, Elisha’s order offended Namaan. There were prettier rivers in Syria, rivers that he would enjoy getting into and bathing. Why did he have to go into the Jordan, and why did he have to bathe seven times? Furious, Namaan turned to leave. He was going to return home. From his point of view it was humiliating to be told to go to some muddy river and wash himself seven times. He was dissuaded, however, by his servants, who said “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?” So why not go in obedience, and wash yourself in the Jordan? Namaan obeyed, and against his every expectation, he was healed of his leprosy.
Now, there is more to this story, and in the end, Namaan’s leprosy was transferred to a servant of Elisha’s, who acted out of pride and greed. But for our purposes, let’s stop and think about Namaan.
Namaan was a proud man, used to having things his way, and doing as he wished. It was not in his nature to humble himself. Oh, he was open to anything that appealed to his heroic nature, or to any task that he could take pride in performing. But to be asked to dunk himself seven times in a muddy little river was almost more than he could stand. There was no heroism, there was no glory, there was no self, if you will, in Elisha’s command. There was only self-emptying, there was only humility, there was only obedience.
All of us can see ourselves in the person of Namaan. We are proud, and want to do things our way. We have firm ideas about the best way to live our life. We have definite preferences for what is clean and shiny and attractive, as opposed to what looks not shiny and not attractive. We all are drawn to praise for things we have done, and we bask in the admiration of other people. And we all have this little problem – call it spiritual leprosy – that we need taken care of.
In response, we must emulate Namaan. We must set aside our worldly trappings and achievements, and empty ourselves, in imitation of our Lord. We must repeatedly submerge ourselves into the Jordan of repentance, in obedience and in hope, that Christ our Lord, He who has opened the door of salvation, will heal our souls and save us. It is worth noting that the number seven in this story was not just happenstance. In scriptural terms, seven is the number of completion. It tells us that in our Christian life, we must return repeatedly to the Jordan, not for baptism by water, but for what the Fathers call the baptism of repentance. We must constantly humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our shortcomings and our sins. We must constantly submerge ourselves in the waters of the Jordan.
Do you see the lesson for us? At Christmas, Christ is born in a cave, having emptied Himself for the sake of mankind. At the Theophany, Christ is baptized in the Jordan, submerged into a muddy river in obedience and in fulfillment of the divine will, and in His obedience he sanctified the waters of the earth.
That is the thread that connects Christmas and the Theophany. The extreme humility of Christ, and the humble response from us. Think of the infant Jesus in the cave, and know that He was born for you and I. Think of Jesus, who submitted to baptism in that muddy little river, and know that He did that for you and I. Let us respond. Let us humble ourselves to our God, and like Namaan, set aside our pride and our achievements. Let us seek the baptism of repentance, dipping ourselves into the Jordan, for as long as we live.