Sermon on the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany)
By His Eminence Archbishop Tikhon
First Hierarch of the Russian True Orthodox Church
(An unofficial translation)
2023, Omsk, Siberia
At that time: Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. But John was trying to hinder Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is becoming for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitteth Him. And Jesus, having been baptized, went up straightway from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and coming upon Him. And behold, there came to be a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased.” (St. Matthew 3:13-17)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
The Holy Church, the Holy Fathers in every possible way instruct, compel and ask the priests to remind the faithful of the great mystery of Baptism. When better to remember it than today, on the day of the feast of the Baptism of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The centre of the remembrance of this feast is what the chanters sang about today: “God the Word appeared in the flesh unto the race of mankind.” The Incarnate Son of God, about Whose birth, when He was born, only a very few knew about, “appeared to the human race,” for His baptism is, as it were, His solemn appearance for His ministry, which He then performed until His death and resurrection.
But at the same time, today’s feast is characterised by the fact that, as it is sung in its troparion, on this particular feast “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” All three Persons of the Holy Trinity appeared for the first time in their separateness [раздельности], which is why this feast is called, I repeat, “the feast of the Holy Theophany.” People heard the voice of God the Father: “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased” (in Whom I am well pleased), the Son of God received baptism from John (moreover, we know from the Gospel that John the Baptist seemed to be at a loss when the Saviour of the world came to him, and tried to hold Him back), and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended from the Father on the Son. Thus, for the first time, “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest,” which is why the Church sings this in the troparion, and why she calls this feast the “Feast of the Holy Theophany.”
In these days after the Nativity of the Lord, the Holy Church calls us to the banks of the Jordan, and today the goal of our whole life is set before us, and this is communion with God. And we are given Grace, God’s help for such a life. And this help, this Grace comes to us from the One worshippable God in Trinity, Who is revealed to us in today’s Gospel reading. And as material evidence, as a symbol of this Grace, we are given the Epiphany water, the consecration of which we will perform today. It is tangible. So often, through something tangible, the Holy Church unites us with the intangible – the Grace of God. Let us listen to what the Holy Church tells us today through the Apostolic Reading: “The grace of God which bringeth salvation appeared to all men, instructing us that, after we deny impiety and worldly lusts, we should live in the present age soberly and righteously and piously, waiting for the happy hope and appearance of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…”
The Lord Himself did not need baptism, but commanded John the Forerunner to baptise Him in order to fulfil all righteousness. Thus, the Lord pointed out to us the need for baptism. One night, while talking with Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees who believed, the Lord explained to him that if a person is not born of water and the Spirit, then he will not enter the Kingdom of God. If a person believes in God, wants to enter the Kingdom of God, then he must necessarily accept the mystery of Baptism. For it is a necessary condition for a person’s entry into spiritual society, into the Church, and through it only he can have the hope of reaching the Kingdom of God. “The one having believed and having been baptized shall be saved; but the one not having believed shall be condemned.” Anyone who believes and wants to be saved, every Christian, must himself accept the mystery of Baptism and baptize his children.
What happens in the mystery of Baptism? In it comes the death of the old, sinful man. Therefore, if a person in an adult state with faith and repentance accepts the mystery of Baptism, then both ancestral sin [первородный грех] and his own sins are forgiven. A man comes out of the font as an angel of God. There are many examples where the effect of the sacrament of Baptism on those around him and on the baptised person himself was evident. Sometimes the one who was baptized shone like the sun, his whole body changed even from the outside, but inside he experienced bliss as in the Kingdom of God. He who has received the mystery of Baptism is reborn by the Holy Spirit, is clothed by the Lord Himself, for the Lord enters into his heart. Today we heard: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This means that the Lord enters into their hearts.
However, if a person after Baptism does not live in a Christian way, but in a pagan way, offending the Lord with all sorts of sins and not repenting of them, if he does not cleanse his soul from sins, he will turn out to be like one unbaptized. That is why we often hear from non-believers: “Here you are – believers, baptized, and you are worse than us.” So the Word of God says: sometimes Christians blaspheme the name of God when they live worse than the pagans.
The Lord gave freedom to man, and he can go either to God or to the devil. There is no third way. There is no middle state. Therefore, we Christians must go to God, strive for Him, believe in Him, accept the mysteries, fulfil the commandments of God, and if we have not fulfilled something, then acknowledge it and not make excuses, but weep over our sins before Him, ask for forgiveness, so that He, the merciful Lord, forgives and cleanses our soul. Whoever consciously sins, makes excuses for his sins, and does not repent of them opposes the Lord, becomes an enemy of God, and goes to the devil.
Without the mystery of Baptism, I repeat to you, a person cannot enter the Kingdom of God. “If,” says the Lord, “a person is not born of water and the Spirit, then he will not enter the Kingdom of God.” That is why the enemy of our salvation, the devil, so fights against the mystery of Baptism, tries in every possible way to belittle its significance, and prevents its completion. Therefore, if someone is not baptized as a baby, then he must be baptized as an adult, having previously repented of his sins and made a promise to God to live like a Christian.
To cross the sea, you need a ship – you can’t swim across the sea. In order to cross the sea of life and reach the Kingdom of God, one must enter the Ark of Salvation [церковный корабль], enter the Church, for only on the Ark of Salvation can one cross the stormy sea of life and reach the Kingdom of God. One can enter the Church only through the mystery of Baptism. And if a person, having become a member of the Church, continues to fall into sin due to weakness, but still strives for the Lord, and repents, then although he falls away from the Church through his sins, despite this, with sincere repentance, he is cleansed and reunited with the Church. So during confession, the priest reads the prayer: “Reconcile this sinner and unite him unto Thy Holy Church,” and then reads the prayer of absolution and absolves him from sins.
So, there is no other way to get there but through the mysery of Baptism. Let us try to read the Word of God and assimilate it with all our hearts, especially the Gospel, where the life of the Lord and His sufferings for the sake of our salvation, His commandments, His teachings are written. Let us be imbued with the Spirit of God, trying to fulfil His holy commandments, let us repent of our transgressions and beseech the Lord to vouchsafe us after death to be participants in His Kingdom.
Today, on the feast of the Theophany of the Lord, it would be very appropriate to recall that this feast has been called the Feast of the Enlightenment [Просвещения] since ancient times, because on the eve of it, those who were catechumens were enlightened by the mystery of Holy Baptism. In addition, during the mystery of Chrismation performed at baptism, the grace of the Divine Spirit is bestowed, which is for the baptised a source of true enlightenment, a source of true knowledge given to them from God for the destruction of all ungodliness in them and, at the same time, the acquisition of Christian virtues by the baptized.
Even the Apostles, before they received the grace of the Holy Spirit, could not correctly understand the teachings that they had been taught directly from the Lord Himself during His earthly life. From the Gospel it is clear that they could not assimilate the teachings about the mystery of the Holy Eucharist and were inclined to look at Him until the very last days of the life of Jesus Christ as the Messiah in the sense of an earthly king. And only when the grace of the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on the 50th day after the Resurrection of Christ, did it instantly regenerate them, enlighten them, and was their teacher, revealing to them all the secrets of the Divine economy.
But this grace, which descended upon the Apostles and enriched them with omniscience [всеведением], is present in us from the moment of our baptism and chrismation. Why does it not teach us, as it taught the Apostles? The point is that it can act in us and teach everything salvific only with our assistance, i.e. then, when we ourselves will reveal it in ourselves through the careful fulfilment of God’s commandments, and in this way we will achieve purity of heart, without which no one will see God and will not receive true saving knowledge. So let us remember that only the pure in heart see the Divine.
Those darkened by sin seeing do not see, and hearing do not hear. People saw the sky at the baptism of the Lord, but only John the Baptist saw that it was open. Many looked at the Lord Jesus Christ when He came to the Jordan, but only John spiritually saw that he was the incarnate Son of God, while others looked at Him as an ordinary person, a carpenter and a carpenter’s son.
Perhaps not only John saw the Holy Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove, but only he understood that it was the Holy Spirit, while others mistook it for the flight of an ordinary dove. Many heard the voice of God the Father in the Jordan, but only John clearly heard the testimony of God about His Son, while others heard it like thunder roaring over the waters. So today, we see the clouds covering the sky, but we don’t see that it is open, we breathe in the air, but we don’t feel the Holy Spirit descending on us and on the waters, we hear the words of church hymns and don’t understand their Divine power. All this is a consequence of the impurity of our heart.
In the lives of the first Christians, thanks to their amazing purity of heart, the grace of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in a special, abundant measure. Now there is nothing to talk about such zeal, it simply does not exist. Therefore, there is no such purity and height of Christian life, with which the first centuries of Christianity so shone. Grace is the same today, only it doesn’t work the way it used to. In our time, the grace that we receive in the Mysteries of the Church of Christ, as it were, smoulders in us, like a spark under the pile of ashes of our various passions. For we do not have a special desire and determination to kindle this grace with ascetic deeds and the steady fulfilment of God’s commandments, simply speaking, we have become lukewarm.
What should we do so that the grace of the Holy Spirit teaches us everything that saves? The answer is very simple – we weak and sinful people can learn and be enlightened by the light of grace through the grace-filled teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, who by their holy life have revealed the grace of Baptism in all its fullness. The grace of the Holy Spirit acted in the Holy Fathers, as well as in the Apostles, she revealed to them in all depth the revelations of the Old and New Testaments, and clarified to them all the truths, both in the dogmatic field and in the moral one – for all ages. Therefore, we must honor the Holy Fathers of the Church and love them as our precious teachers, teaching us the science of our salvation with their grace-filled creations. Therefore, one must compare one’s life, one’s every thought, word and deed with the teachings of the Holy Fathers, and accept everything that is consistent with them, and reject everything that disagrees with them.
With such an attitude towards the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, we will acquire the most precious virtue – humility, for turning to their authority, we will thereby reject our carnal, proud and self-loving wisdom. And then, for the sake of our humility alone, even if we had no other feats, the Lord will not deprive us of the Grace of the Holy Spirit according to the Gospel: “The Lord opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Then, for the sake of our humility, the grace given to us in Holy Baptism will begin to act and multiply in us, constantly enlightening and teaching us under the guidance of the Church and the teachings of the Holy Fathers.
The Lord has commanded of us humility, contrary to the principles of pride and self-love, which present-day humanity is full of. Why do we have so many disagreements, both in the enclosure of the Church and in parishes? Because burning human vanities collide everywhere, but if we had that humility to which the Lord calls us, there would be none of this.
Let us learn from our Saviour, Who, as though some ultimate sinner, came to John to be baptised by him, let us learn from Him this godly and fragrant virtue – humility – without which, as the Holy Fathers have said, no other virtue can be perfect.
And let us remember that it is in the revelation of the regenerating grace that we received in the Sacrament of Baptism that, according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, is the goal of our Christian life, and at the Last Judgement of Christ this grace of the Holy Spirit revealed by us in earthly life will be clothing for us. which will cover the nakedness of our soul, illuminate us with Divine light and lead us into the Wedding Chamber of the Heavenly Bridegroom, into the eternal blessed Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.