Sermon delivered January 19, 2020 by Archimandrite Maximos
We have today in the Gospel, quite a vision. The Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, comes to the River Jordan. The River Jordan is only impressive in theology; in reality it’s a small muddy river, in a then-obscure province of the Roman Empire. And John the Baptist is there baptizing people to wash away their sins; it’s a different understanding of what Baptism is. So then the God-man, Jesus Christ, appears before John and tells him, “Baptize me.” John is dumbfounded; he is astonished. How could he, a sinful man by his own reckoning, baptize our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ? So he protests and says, “No, how can I do this?” And the Lord says to do it. And he does it, because he’s obedient. He baptizes the Lord in the River Jordan, and when He comes out of the river, we have—this is why we call the Feast the Theophany—the manifestation of God.
The heavens open and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, alights upon the Lord and we hear the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I well pleased.” This event, this Theophany, is a transformation of the world, a transformation of the cosmos. The principle thing we hear in the services, and we talk about, is the nature of water. Water, in the Old Testament, as we know particularly in the flood, was used by the Lord to wash away the sin of the world in a very violent and very destructive way. All flesh except Noah, and the animals, and his family, were washed away by the power, the destruction, of water—this kind of water.
Today the uncreated fire of the Godhead descends into the water, and in that action—the descent of the fire of the Godhead into the water—water is changed forever. No longer our enemy, no longer merely a means of physical sustenance, it becomes the means of our transformation.
And then we know water in its normal mode. Water is something that will sustain us when we’re thirsty; we need water to live. But in this event, this particular Mystery, the nature of water is changed, and by that, the whole cosmos is changed. Water now becomes the means of our regeneration, the material form of our Baptism. No longer is it merely able to wash away external physical dirt; now the Lord has willed that it be used as a means of regeneration. We are regenerated, made alive again through the water and the Spirit.
On this day, in a few moments, we will reenact this cosmic event in the sanctification of water. And if we pay attention to this service we will hear these cosmic details; we will hear these words over and over: “Today heaven is opened.” Today the uncreated fire of the Godhead descends into the water, and in that action—the descent of the Godhead, the fire of the Godhead, into the water—water is changed forever. No longer our enemy, no longer merely a means of physical sustenance, it becomes the means of our transformation. Water, as we know symbolically, can be in many shapes. Water can be steam; water can be snow as we see outside; water is manifold. It is the symbol of the flexibility of matter and reality. So the transformation of the element of water is critical, and it’s a particular Mystery.
The waters of Noah have been transformed; the flood which was too much, and too great, and choked everyone, is now made available to us to transform our souls. The water is transformed, but we have to use it to clean ourselves, otherwise it’s a distant thing, an inaccessible thing.
We will transform regular water, we will make that water the very water of Jordan, and we will consume that water together. This is a great mystery, this is a great miracle, how the Lord through His incarnation has restacked the whole deck; He has changed everything. He has made the world a different place. It looked the same to many people; if they took a picture a moment before and took a picture a moment afterwards, they would have seen the same thing, but the internal spiritual dynamic is transformed forever. We are now able to use the material forms of this world as a support for the spiritual. This is the great event.
And we, as members of the Church, are called on and invited to participate in this great miracle. By the hands of the unworthy priests, we will make Jordan present again today. The waters of Noah have been transformed; the flood which was too much, and too great, and choked everyone, is now made available to us to transform our souls. Dear brothers and sisters, that’s the cosmic element of it, but water also is very immediate. We have to do those things. The Lord’s incarnational work, His death, His resurrection, are made available to us. We have to actualize it. The water is transformed, but we have to use it to clean ourselves, otherwise it’s a distant thing, an inaccessible thing.
Our salvation is not merely in our head, it’s not merely in our mind, it’s not merely in books; we have to live it. The Lord knows how difficult this is…so He has given us the power of the sacramental Mysteries so that we can fight back, so that we can create a spiritually safe place for ourselves to live.
But it’s made accessible today. Today you’re given this chance to rewash, reclean, renew, reinvigorate all of these things through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because we are inviting the Holy Spirit, the very Holy Spirit, the Godhead, again today, to descend into the water and transform it. Dear brothers and sisters, this is our great calling; this is our great gift. This great Mystery is what is presented to us for this transformation. Let us take it seriously.
Yesterday we baptized John into the Holy Church, and I pointed out in my few feeble words how important our life in Christ is, and how the world, and everything in the world, desires to separate us from the holiness that is available in the great Mysteries of the Church. Our salvation is not merely in our head, it’s not merely in our mind, it’s not merely in books; we have to live it. The Lord knows how difficult this is. He knows this is not easy. He knows the world wars against us in every way. He knows the devil uses the material creation to try to destroy us, so He has given us the power of the sacramental Mysteries so that we can fight back, so that we can create a spiritually safe place for ourselves to live, so that we can bless.
One of our traditions is for the priest to go and bless all the houses in the community. And this is critically important, because it’s a casting out of the devil from our lives; it’s going into our private places, not just here in Church, but everywhere. The Holy Spirit has to touch every portion, every square inch, every tiny place of our lives; there’s no place in us, there’s no place on earth that can avoid this cleansing. So dear brothers and sisters, embrace it; do not fight it. Do not resist the Holy Spirit. Invite the Holy Spirit into your heart. Use the things of the Church to transform yourselves.