Water is a prime symbol in all religions. No surprise, since water covers over 70% of the earth’s surface. In Genesis, the earth is all water at the beginning. Then we have the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Jordan, etc. In the New Testament, water is again prime symbol. John baptizes in water – but asserts that Jesus will baptize in fire and the Spirit. But Jesus himself says to Nicodemus that unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus stood and proclaim to all the people: If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. If you believe in me, out of your heart will flow rivers of living water. And this he said to mean the Holy Spirit which would be given to all believers.
So water is life. But it is also a destructive force. In all ancient religions, water represents chaos, the uncontrolled destructive forces of nature. Every ancient religion had powerful gods associated with the sea or the great rivers that governed their lives.
In the second century, a group of Gnostics in Egypt were preaching that Jesus had been born a mere mortal like all other men, but then received divinity on the day of his baptism, when the Spirit of God came upon him in the form of a dove. They chose to commemorate this important event on the sixth of January, on the same day that Egyptians celebrated a pagan feast in honor of the god of the Nile.
The Church opposed the teachings of the Gnostics but kept January 6th as the date for celebrating the baptism of Christ. In addition to Epiphany, the alternate name Theophany was promoted to emphasize the orthodox idea that it wasn’t a man who was made divine, but the divine second person of the Trinity became man and lived among us.
In many icons of the Baptism, there are little humans shown in the river, along with various creatures. These undoubtedly represent the mythological figures associated with water. But now, as Jesus steps into the water of the Jordan, these mythological figures lose their power over human beings. This is the first thing that Jesus accomplishes in his baptism – he removes from human consciousness the fear of the unknown, the fear of nature, the fear of gods and goddesses. Water is once again restored to its divine mission to sustain life. Water becomes a means of sanctification – which is why we celebrate the Blessing of Water. We bless water – which means we reveal its divine purpose.
When we bless each other, we reveal our divine purpose. When we bless God, we declare God’s purposes. “Bless you” is not a little pious sentiment, a little bit of spirituality to show that we are religious. Greetings are holy acts! In Liturgy too!! No, when I say, “God bless you,” I’m saying may God reveal your divine purpose, may God speak good into your heart and soul so that you can wake up to why you are really here. Think how beautiful that is, how truly unique you are – not because some afternoon talk show tells you, but because God has a unique word, and a unique purpose that he reveals to you. And we can help each other. Next time you say “God bless you” to someone you are asking for the most transformative things that can happen in that person’s life.
Jesus restores water. He restores all creation. He takes back everything that the ancient people surrendered to gods and goddesses. Everything is brought back to its proper relation to us and to God. And everything is a blessing, a path to the divine life. Superstition should have no place in human lives. It never ceases to amaze me how superstition still rules the lives of many who call themselves Christian.
The other great symbol is light. This is a feast of light. In Greek, the feast of Epiphany is simply called Τα Φώτα – The Lights. Jesus is the light of the world. He came from light in order to bring light to those who were sunk in darkness, the darkness of unbelief and pagan superstition. He came to bring light so that we can see with clear eyesight the beauty of the world around us, the nature that is sanctified along with us. Look at the icons around us. Light everywhere. Jesus brings light to the world at his baptism; light from the mount of transfiguration; light into the city of Jerusalem and every city and neighborhood; light into the depths of Hades, the realm of death, so that death itself is freed from being our enemy = light at the death of his mother and of every mortal.
It’s all light, dear friends. Fear nothing. Evil exists and does great harm on a daily basis. But evil never endures, it is always defeated. Bless God in the sanctuary; bless God in our lives. Amen.