This Sunday's sermon in advance...

Tarpon Springs, Florida, Epiphany, and the crowds have come early. The Bishop will be present and standing at the edge of the water. At the appropriate time, a group of young boys at the ready, he will throw a cross into the water and the young men will dive in the hope of recovering it and gaining a little bit of celebrity and blessings for the year.

Up here where the snow falls and the water gets hard around December we try to avoid doing this. It’s not that we don’t cherish Epiphany, we do, but we prefer those who dive into the water to come out intact so we put the cross in the hands of a Priest and plunge it into a bowl of water to bless it. If the weather is better and the people more inclined they may process to a local river or lake and bless the water from the shore or through the ice.

Regardless the symbolism is the same. In Tarpon Springs the cross symbolizes Christ and the boys who dive for it call to mind St. John the Forerunner lifting our Lord from the water following his baptism. And in places grand and humble Orthodox Christians will symbolically repeat that action, crosses in water calling to mind the baptism of Christ. But there is more to the story, truths the various customs call us to remember.

The word Epiphany itself means “to show” or "to reveal” and occasionally the word will be used to describe when a person has a moment when they finally understand something. As Orthodox we understand three things are made known to us in the events commemorated by this Holy Day.

The first is the truth of the Trinity. In the story of Jesus baptism we see the first time when in a very explicit way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present to humanity. Those who witnessed Jesus’ baptism heard the voice of the Father declaring that this person being baptized was indeed the Son and above it all the Holy Spirit hovered, as at the beginning of the world, over the waters.

As Orthodox Christians we need to be reminded that our view of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, did not arise out of some inner need to be esoteric or mystical but rather because God chose to reveal Himself this way. At times it’s difficult to conceive of a God who can be three persons in one essence, the uniqueness of God leaves us with nothing with which we can compare. Yet we know, as well, that there are things in the world which are true even though we cannot exhaustively understand them.Rather than seeing the Trinity as a puzzle which must be solved we understand this revelation as a gift given by love, an infinite God showing finite humanity the truth of His being in a way that we can at least grasp on to even as it challenges our senses and categories.

The second truth revealed in the Epiphany is the solidarity of God with His creation and with its redemption. People who study the scriptural accounts often wonder why it was that Jesus was baptized. We understand that baptism for us is regenerative, that is it brings us forgiveness of sins, enlightenment, salvation, and the grace of God to grow in a continuing life of faith. But Jesus had no need of any of this. So for Orthodox it was not the waters that sanctified Jesus but Jesus who sanctified the waters, and all creation, by his baptism. The waters of the Jordan and through them all creation were blessed by contact with Jesus in his baptism, a kind of preparation for the day when all creation will be returned to the goodness and glory with which it was endowed by God.

Related to this is our Orthodox understanding that as Jesus entered into physical matter, in his birth and in his baptism, matter itself, far from being crude or base, can be a channel of grace. This is why we bless people, objects and animals, use water, incense, oil, and a wide variety of physical items in our worship and life, and of course celebrate the icon. It’s also why we don’t cremate our dead; a body that has been, like all physical matter, touched by grace in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit becomes itself a sacred thing. When Jesus stepped into the water phyiscal matter began its return to sanctity and while many think of us as a mystical faith in reality Orthodoxy is very organic, earthy, and sacramental.

And finally there is a call to us as well, in remembering the significance of the Epiphany, to reveal the reality of God in our own lives. We’re challenged by our faith to allow God to be revealed in us so that through us God can be revealed to the world. The Epiphany is not just something we recall or an event that we can study for its significance but it should also be our lived experience, the reality of God living in us revealing God to a world that now more than ever needs to see his face.

Understand this and you'll begin to know your Faith.

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