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Teaching Theophany

by Elissa Bjeletich (used with permission)

This post appeared previously as a Raising Saints podcast episode and was published on Elissa’s blog on 1.2.16.

Whether we celebrate on the Old Calendar or on the New, in our beautiful Orthodox tradition, we follow our 40 day fast with a feast that lasts not just one day, but several days.  We prepare ourselves with the fast, pulling ourselves away from the comforts of rich foods, and showing some self-discipline, so that we can focus not on making ourselves comfortable and full, but on prayer and alms and study.  We prepare our hearts in this way, and then when the feast comes, we multiply our joy with tables loaded with delicious goodies, which are all the more delightful because we haven’t seen them in a while.  Because the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is so important, the feast lasts ten days — and then we return to fasting just in time to gather our wits and prepare ourselves for the great feast of Theophany, the day of Christ’s baptism.  We take a short break from the feasting, and fast for just one day, in order to call our hearts to order and prepare ourselves to receive Theophany.

The Church is very wise as it guides us here; our hearts need this kind of preparation, and Theophany is a great time to think about preparation.  Perhaps we can make some time during these joyous Nativity days, to prepare our children by speaking with them about Theophany, or Epiphany, as we sometimes call it.  Not only is it a beautiful and great feast, but it is an excellent opportunity to begin the new year with a deeper understanding of preparation and fasting.

The story really begins with John the Forerunner.  He is such a powerful figure, strong and sure.  He is the last of the prophets.  The Old Testament shows us how God reached out to His people through the prophets — children should be aware that God spoke through Moses and David, Elias and Isaiah and all of the prophets, who then spread God’s messages to His people.  Through the Holy prophets, God gave His people the Law and told them how much He loved them and how they could live good lives, and He prepared them so that they would recognize and receive the Messiah when He came.

In a sense, the Old Testament is the story of preparation — it begins with the creation of the world and follows the ways in which God reached out to His creation, preparing the world to receive God Himself in the incarnate flesh.

As part of that preparation, God sent Isaiah, who told them that a Virgin would bear God’s own Son, and Isaiah also foretold John, who would be the last of the prophets to prepare them for Christ.  Isaiah wrote,

Behold, I send My Messenger before Your face
Who will prepare your way before You
The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight

When John was asked if he was the Messiah, if he were Christ, John answered No, and said that he was actually “the one crying in the wilderness”.

And John was literally in the wilderness.  He lived in the wilderness.

John had lived in the desert since he was a young boy.  We know him to be the greatest ascetic; the Scriptures tell us that he lived on honey and wild locusts and wore camel-hair garments.  John did not live in the comfort of the cities, like other people, and he didn’t eat warm bread fresh from the oven or roasted chicken or lamb like the other people.

He lived away from all comfort, in the wilderness.  He chose to be there, in that lonely and hard place, because he preferred to be closer to God.  He knew that if he refused to let his body be comfortable with soft clothes and delicious foods, he could not be distracted by those things.

It’s always worthwhile to brainstorm with kids about the distractions they find in their own lives — because if there is one thing you can say about the age we live in, it’s rich with distractions.  Many people in our day will spend their entire lives distracted by television and video games, by restaurants and work, by shopping and consuming, and those distractions will eat up all of their time and all of their energy, and they will have forgotten to spend time getting to know God.

John didn’t want that.  He didn’t live among people in a city, because he didn’t want to spend his time and energy thinking about food and entertainment and gossip.  He focused on God, and he lived in a place where there were no comforts to distract him.  He wore camel-hair clothing because it’s NOT soft and cozy; he ate locusts and honey because he relied completely on God.  He trusted God to provide him food, and God did — what do your students think of that?  Can they imagine being grateful to eat locusts, which are like grasshoppers, and honey?  John was.  He was happy to eat whatever God provided him.

John was in the wilderness, living the fast every day of his life.  From his childhood through his adulthood he lived like this — imagine how full of God his heart must have been!

As he grew older, he eventually came out of the wilderness and went to the Jordan River and preached repentance and baptized many people.  He told them to repent — to realize that they were headed down the wrong path, a path of sin and death, and to stop and turn around and walk the path of righteousness.  John told them to change the course of their lives, to do the right thing and to be kind and good, because Jesus was coming.

And there is another topic for conversation — if John came to you today and told you to repent, that Christ would be here in a moment and you needed to get ready — is there something you would stop doing?  would you stop fighting with your sisters?  You know, sometimes, in a secular setting, I’ve seen people ask a group of students, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?”  Everyone makes a list, and then the speaker exhorts them to do it now, because who knows?   Right?  It’s a good way to teach us to seize the day.  When you talk about John the Forerunner, you might do an activity like that and ask them, what if John were standing before you, in his camel hair coat with his wild hair, and he were telling you to Repent, to change your ways?  Would you listen?  What would you repent?  What sin would you abandon at his behest?  Why not do that today?  Who knows when Christ will return — it could be any time.  John teaches us to get our house in order before He comes back, and it’s excellent advice that we could all take.  Why don’t we?

So John was there at the Jordan River, baptizing thousands of people, and telling them that something better was coming —

he said, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.  I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John was well loved and had many followers, but he didn’t grow proud and vain.  He didn’t walk around talking about how great he was — instead, he prepared people to receive Christ.  He told them that the Son of God would be much better than him, that he was baptizing believers with water, but that Christ would baptize them with the Holy Spirit!

It was John’s job to prepare the way for Jesus, to announce that He was coming and to get the people ready to follow him.  And of course, John himself was ready for that important job, because he had preparing all of his life for it.  He fasted and he prayed, and he focused himself on God.  He was prepared when Christ came.

Because John’s life is such a great model of ascetism, we should point out this preparation to our students and children, as John is an important example for all of us.  He fasted eagerly, and so should we.  Because of his fasting, his preparation, he was able to become such a useful instrument of God, and if we could hope ever to be useful to God, we should prepare ourselves as well.  If we can emulate John when we fast, we can pray that God finds ways to use us to help His people as he used John.

And one day, all of that preparation comes to a head:  one day, as John stood preaching at the Jordan, Christ Himself walked right up to him.  Can you imagine that?

As Matthew tells us in his third chapter,

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”

John recognizes Jesus, and he understands that this is the Son of God whose way he has been preparing.  He stands ready to be baptized by Christ, to receive that baptism of the Holy Spirit, the better baptism that he knows Christ will give.  He says, “I need to be baptized by You,“ but

Jesus answers him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Ever our good example, John was humble, and so when Jesus assured him that it would fulfill all righteousness, John immediately baptized Christ right there in the Jordan River.

So why would Christ be baptized?  What is baptism?

We are baptized at the beginning of our journey, aren’t we?  Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults, baptism is what brings us into the life of the Church, what makes us members ready to receive Holy Communion and all of the blessings of the Church.  Even if you’ve prepared for baptism with years of study, with a long period as a catechumen, when you reach the goal of your baptism, you’ve actually just found the first step on your journey with Christ.

Christ was also baptized at the beginning of His journey — He had been alive on earth for thirty years, and when He was prepared to begin His public ministry, when He was ready to reveal Himself and to assemble his disciples and begin to preach to the crowds, He was baptized.

Of course, as your children and your students likely already understand, it should be noted here that baptism is about washing away sin — and of course, Christ had no sin!  He didn’t need baptism to wash away His sin.  His baptism was different.  You and I were sanctified by holy waters; we were washed clean and made holy by the waters of baptism.  For Christ, the opposite happened:  He sanctified the water — He transformed regular water into something Holy and powerful.

This is one of my favorite things to teach kids, because they understand that water is so important in our lives.  Water is life — when our scientists look at distant planets and try to determine if they can support life, they look for water, don’t they?  Our very bodies are mostly water, and our earth is mostly water.  If your kids are older than, say, first or second grade, they are likely well versed in the ‘water cycle” — they’ve probably learned about how water evaporates up into the air, and then condenses into clouds and dew, and finally precipitates down in the rain and snow.  The earth does not generate new water, but rather the limited supply of water on earth moves through this endless cycle.

The water we are drinking today is the same water that flooded the earth in Noah’s day, it’s the same water that parted at the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and it’s the same water that flowed in the Jordan when Christ was baptized.

All of the water on the earth moves around.  The rivers run to the oceans, and the oceans are all connected, and the water gets all mixed around together, both in bodies of water on earth and in the clouds that swirl above us.

If you take a clear pitcher or glass of water and show it to your students, you can tell them that it’s the very same old water that’s been on this earth since the beginning of time.

And then you can show them how Christ changed it:  when He stepped into that river, His holiness charged into the water and flowed through it, making all of the waters on the earth holy.

If you add a few drops of food coloring to the water, they can see for themselves how it spreads.  It starts in just the one spot, and it spreads out throughout container — like Christ’s holiness.  Soon, it has spread throughout the water equally, and no piece of water can be protected or isolated from its effects.  In this way, Christ made the waters of the Jordan holy, and they flowed out to the sea and the holiness spread and spread — and the water evaporated into the sky and flowed to oceans — it joined in the great water cycle, and all of the water on earth was changed and made holy by Christ.  Glory be to God!

Now something very unusual happened when Christ stepped into the Jordan and was baptized by John — you see, the Jordan River turned around and the water ran upstream.  The mighty river itself felt its Creator’s presence, and leaped up in joy, and changed direction!  (Do your students remember how John leaped in His mother’s womb as a child?  And here leaps the Jordan!  There are so many beautiful connections to be made in Scripture!)  You can see in the icon of Christ’s baptism, the way that the fish move — the water has reversed direction and the fish are leaping around.  Psalm 114 foretells this very moment:  verse 3 reads, “the sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back” .  The Psalms are full of verses about how creation praises the Lord.

Our children should be aware of this, should hear the Psalms echo in their heads when they are lucky enough to gaze on the beauty of the natural world.  When you hear a waterfall singing or see an eagle soaring, know that all of creation praises God forever!

There is so much to teach in Christ’s baptism — there’s John’s preparation and fasting, his message of repentance, Christ’s sanctification of all water, creation’s praise — and we haven’t even reached the Theophany!  This word means the revelation of God, and we call the feast of Christ’s baptism the Theophany because of what comes next:

Matthew writes,

When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

At this remarkable moment, as all of the water, the life blood of our entire earth, is sanctified by Christ Himself, Christ emerges and the heavens open up!  The Son stands there in the flesh, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, and the Father’s voice booms down from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Holy Trinity is made manifest, all three in one accord and in one place together, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As creation lurches up in joy, the Holy Trinity reveals itself and God confirms the goodness of His beloved Son.

We can well see how heaven opens up and comes down to earth, just as all of creation is rising up in praise — everything connected in the joy of Christ’s baptism!  This feast is an amazing convergence of everything, as human history has all lead up to this moment!  Generations of prophets have prepared human beings to receive the Messiah and here He is, being baptized by the last prophet and beginning His public ministry with the express blessing of God the Father in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s make sure that the children in our families and our parishes are understanding Theophany in all of its complexity and beauty.  This isn’t simply Holy Water Day, it’s a glorious feast, and every year, we should teach them about another of its glorious aspects.  There is so much to say about Theophany that it cannot be confined to a single forty-five-minute class period or to one conversation over dinner — indeed, we’d better start the conversation now, because it could go on forever.

So, as we live these twelve lovely days of Christmas, we’ll move from seeing Christ born in a manger and in our hearts, to receiving Him with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, sanctifying all of creation with His holiness.  Let’s show our children how we will stop and fast on the eleventh day, to prepare ourselves even in the midst of a great feast, to celebrate the Holy Theophany, hoping to receive that revelation of the Trinity in our own, prepared hearts.

May our Great and Glorious Lord bless you in this New Year!

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