Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Worship of the Trinity was made Manifest

Greetings during the Feast of Theophany, when Orthodox Christians commemorate the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. The significance of this great feast, which is every bit as important as the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), is expressed in the troparion hymn for the day:

When You, O Lord
were baptized in the Jordan,
The worship of the Trinity
was made manifest, 
For the voice of the Father
bore witness to You,
And called You His beloved Son. 
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, 
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word. 
O Christ, our God,
You have revealed Yourself 
And have enlightened the world,
Glory to You!

The worship of Christ as Lord, "Light of Light" and Enlightener of the World is also strongly emphasized in the kontakion for the feast:

Today You have shown forth
to the world, O Lord, 
and the light of Your countenance
has been signed on us. 
Knowing You, we sing Your praises. 
You have come and revealed Yourself, 
O unapproachable Light.

This Feast has great import for us vis a vis Islam, as we can glean from the below sermon by Schema-hieromonk Ambrose Young. In his homily, Fr Ambrose connects the many theophanies from the Old Testamental period with the Great Theophany of the Coming of Christ. He also contrasts the false pagan theophanies of ancient times with the true divine theophanies of the Old and New Testaments. 

We may rightly include Islam with the false pagan religions and their artificial theophanies. For unlike the many true divine theophanies of the Old and New Testaments, which were witnessed by others and set down by the witnesses for the edification of the faithful, there were no witnesses to Muhammad's so-called "revelations." Muhammad brought forth his revelations — his theophanies — without corroboration, and when challenged as to why he should be believed to be the messenger of God, he replied that his revelations point to him, that they themselves — i.e. the Qur'an — are the greatest miracle. Muhammad provides the epitome of a closed, self-defining system: "Believe in me, for I bring you these revelations, which point to me as the bringer of these revelations."  Is this not just like the pagans of Delphi, Egypt or Rome (described below) who displayed their false idols to the people for adoration? Islam is no less idolatrous for its extreme iconoclasm.  

St John of Damascus was quite right in ridiculing the credulity and gullibility of those who would accept "revelations" from Muhammad with no witnesses or corroboration. Christ Himself, while holding up John the Baptist as His witness (JN 5:31-35), challenged the people to examine His works, for they are proof of His Divine Sonship:

"If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him" (JN 10:37-38; see also JN 5:36).

(Much has been written elsewhere of Muhammad's works — war, slaughter, rape, pedophilia, enslavement of captives, concubinage, and much more — so we won't belabor the point here.)

Of the highest importance for us as we celebrate this important feast, the New Testament Theophanies of God (The Baptism of Christ, and the Transfiguration of Christ) reveal God as Love, as a loving communion of Three Divine Persons united in One Essence, co-eternal, co-working, and co-redeeming mankind and the whole of the cosmos. And this is made known to us through the entry into human history of the Co-Eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who proved Himself to be He Who Is through His words, actions, miracles, and ultimately through His voluntary suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension/glorification. We affirm that Christ reveals the true character of God through His entire self-emptying (Greek: kenotic) mission. 

The Great Feast of Theophany thus reveals not just Christ, but Who God Is: God as Love, God as intimately connected with mankind, God as Trinity. And as Christ triumphs over death through His Resurrection, so Truth triumphs over falsehood, Light over darkness, Love over hate, the Church over the gates of hell.

Islam, in its doctrinal hatred towards Christianity reveals its brittle weakness and gnawing self-doubt. The very existence of merely one faithful Christian is the full repudiation of Islam as a false religion. But the more forcefully Islam denies the Trinity, denies that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, denies the resurrection, and condemns Christians, the more it shows what it is afraid of: Truth, Light, Life, Faith. Islam's most devout adherents — based on the Qur'an, and the sayings and example of Muhammad — rage against and mercilessly persecute our Christian brothers and sisters all around the globe, and in so doing reveal the actual source and purpose of Islam, as well as its ultimate destiny, which is abject and eternal failure and condemnation. 

This is why we are must pray for our suffering Christian brethren throughout the Islamic world, that they would stand firm in the Faith, and bear witness as righteous confessors of Christ Jesus. But we are also compelled to reach out with the Love of Christ to our Muslim neighbors, and offer to them the humble truth of loving communion with the God Who is Love, Who takes away the sins of the world, and frees men from hatred, division, blindness and condemnation. And may many be saved!

Theophany at the Baptism of our Lord
Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple Skete

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In Orthodox Christianity we call the commemoration of the Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist the “Theophany”, a word which comes from the ancient Greek and means the “appearance” or “showing forth of God".  It can also refer to a divine revelation.

In Greece, at Delphi, the “Theophania” was an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of the god Apollo from his winter quarters. The culmination of this feast was a display of statue of Apollo to worshipers, normally kept hidden in the sanctuary. Later Roman mystery religions also often included similar brief displays of images to enthusiastic worshippers.  The ancient Egyptians did the same with their multitude of gods and goddesses, keeping them hidden in a dark inner sanctum except once or twice a year, when these idols were brought forth for people to look upon and adore.

Sometimes we Orthodox tend, wrongly, to think of our Feast of the Theophany as the only example of this in human history, in the Scriptures, but this is not true.  As I said, ancient pagans saw various manifestations or appearances or experiences oftheir “gods” as theophanies, too.  We see this all through ancient literature.

But of course for Christians and Jews the term has a very limited and specific meaning: it marks a true manifestation or literal appearance of the presence of the true God to man.  The Old Testament makes it very clear that God did in fact reveal Himself to man, and did so several times and in different ways. This is not a matter for our speculation or philosophizing; this is an object of belief, of faith.  These theophanies were not just some “state of mind” or “feeling”, but an actual appearance—sometimes in the form of a mighty angel or angels (as in the case of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre).  These visions of Almighty God were not at all uncommon, and some of them were so startling, even shocking, that the seers could not bear to look upon them and could find few or no words to describe them.

For instance, in the Book of Exodus the Theophany which Moses experienced on Mount Sinai, although it is described in rather simple and calm language, was accompanied by thunder and lightning, flame reaching up to the very skies (like a volcano, except that Sinai is not a volcano!), the shatteringly loud notes of a trumpet, and the whole mountain shaking.  And out of the midst of this overwhelming manifestation God’s voice was then heard, revealing the Ten Commandments.  The account in Deuteronomy of this same event adds that God appeared like a shining sun and was accompanied by myriads of holy angels.

I could go on to describe other theophanies in the Old Testament, primarily those to Isaiah and Ezekiel, but I’ve said enough here to show why it’s important to read Scripture, and not only the New Testament, but the Old as well.  For by doing this we see that the Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament is merely the culmination of many earlier clear manifestations of the divine in the Old Testament.

Nothing, however, was like the Theophany which occurred at the baptism of the Lord.

Therefore what, exactly, was the “manifestation” or “Theophany” of God at the Lord’s baptism?  Well, it marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity were revealed simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor).  This was the first public display of Christ as God the Incarnate Word, the first time this revelation was given to the world and testified to by God the Father Himself, who said, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”

In mystic commemoration of this incredible revelation at the Jordan River, water is especially blessed on this day, and used by the faithful throughout the year and also for the annual blessing of homes by the priest.

Now, all of this is rather easy to say, easy to talk about, “nice” words, even.  But think for a moment about what it really means and what it meant to John the Baptist and his followers, and also the followers of Christ who were present, and what it meant to all of creation, and what it should mean to us today.  I’m not talking here so much about the remarkable external signs—the voice of God the Father, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and Jesus, standing in the River Jordan.  I’m talking about what is behind all of this; what it means.

Of course there were already indications, hints, about God the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament, but it is only in the New that it becomes unmistakably clear—that God is one in essence, but triple in person yet undivided, and this Holy Trinity is to be worshipped and adored by us in one single and inseparable worship.  Thus, even when we have prayers addressed to one Person of the Trinity, those prayers almost always end in a glorification of all Three Persons of the Godhead.  And when we specifically address the All-Holy Trinity in our prayers and services, it is in the singular, not the plural, number, for God is One, always, and forever.

It is this revelation—that God is a Oneness in essence expressed as a Trinity of persons—that sets Christianity completely and irrevocably apart from all other religions on the face of the earth.  It is also one of the ways in which we differentiate what I call loosely mainstream doctrinal Christians from those groups that call themselves Christian but do not believe in the dogma of the Trinity as expressed here—such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and other sectarian groups.

It’s important for us to try and grasp the meaning of this doctrine—as difficult as this is with our very frail, fallen, limited, and feeble minds—because the dogma of the Three Persons reveals something about the inner, mystical life of God Himself--: it shows how God is love, as St. John the Evangelist testifies.  One person alone cannot love.  And since God existed eternally before He created the universe and our world, this love which is God could not be something that was extended to His creation, which didn’t yet exist.  Rather, His love was manifest between the Trinity of Persons in Him.

The late Archpriest Michael Pomazansky, in his important work, “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology,” further explains that “God in His very essence is wholly consciousness and thought and self-awareness, each of these three eternal manifestations of Himself by the one God has self-awareness, and therefore each one is a Person....Thus, when in Christian doctrine we speak of the unity of the Tri-unity of God, we are trying to describe the mystical inward life hidden in the depths of the Divinity, revealed to the world in time, in the New Testament, by the sending down of the Son of God from the Father into the world and by the activity of the wonderworking, life-giving, saving power of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.”

Today, to the degree that people have any faith, any beliefs, many see God as something very vague and insubstantial, often equated with good behavior, being nice, etc.  Some will even use the phrase “Lord”—but who knows what this really means to them?   However, for us it means something very dramatic, revelational, and clear: God is a Holy and Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We have God above us, the ever-flowing source of everything that is and the foundation of all being, Who loves and cares so much for us that He sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be with us, right here on earth, and Who took our sins upon us for our salvation, Whom we receive in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist; and finally, there is God in us and in all of creation, that is, the Person of the Holy Spirit, who is the Giver of Life.  It is this God, this tri-une God, which was manifested to us on the occasion of the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan, witnessed by a great multitude, and it is this God, and this God only and no other, that we worship and adore.

The dogma of the Trinity is not something that was developed and added on later to the Christian faith, as some heretics claim.  It was there from the beginning, and the allusions, both in the Old Testament and the very specific allusions in the New, testify to this.  Very early Holy Fathers of the Church spoke about their faith in the Holy Trinity, as also did the very earliest liturgical services of the Church.  Similarly, and in obedience to Scripture, from the very beginning all baptisms have been performed in the Name of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

...Throughout her history, the Church has undergone great disturbances in defending this dogma, and the same is true even today... As did the early Christians who were martyred not only for their faith in Christ but their faith in the tri-une God, we too must be prepared to defend with our lives and go to our deaths, if need be, in defense of this fundamental and over-arching truth, and we must not hesitate to speak of it in our relationships with others.  I’m not suggesting that we be preachy and intrusive in the private spiritual beliefs of others, but that we be discerning and alert to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that when someone speaks very vaguely of God or “the Lord,” we quietly but warmly affirm our belief in the Trinity and be prepared to give an explanation.

For this is truth, and, as the Lord Himself taught us, “the Truth shall set you free.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.