An interesting homily on the Epiphany by St. Proclus of Constantinople of the Eastern Church.
“Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas…At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source unfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.
On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”
When Jesus went into the water of the Jordan, he blessed not only that river, but the waters of the Nile, the rivers of Babylon, the seas far and wide.
The United States Geological Survey (many of its offices now closed in the government shutdown) has a wonderful site on water. Water is everywhere, not only in the seas and rivers, but in the air, the foods we eat, even our bodies.71% of the earth’s surface is water. 60% of our bodies is water. It’s a precious gift.
In the Sacrament of Baptism water’s a powerful sign that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, comes into creation to bring us life.
Usually around this time one of the local New York papers carries the story of the Greek Archbishop of New York throwing a cross into the Hudson River, which is then retrieved by some hardy Greek divers. ( I watched for it, but didn’t see it this year)
The bitter cold, hardly clean waters of the Hudson are blessed with the cross, the sign of Jesus Christ, and the sea itself and the whole world is blessed.
A rite of optimism. The waters of the Hudson are grim and cold this time of year, like the world itself, but they are clothed with Christ’s blessing, however they seem.
In today’s reading at Mass from John’s gospel, Jewish officials and Pharisees from Jerusalem send representatives to John the Baptist as he’s baptizing in the Jordan River near Jericho asking “Who are you?” “Are you the Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet?” “Why are you baptizing?”
“I’m not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet,” John answers. “I am the voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. ’” John knew who he was and who he was not, and he wasn’t afraid to be the one God wanted him to be.
John could have followed his father, Zechariah, as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, a role passed on from father to son. But John chose a different course. God led him another way.
We don’t know when, but John went down to the Jordan Valley where the road ascended to Jerusalem, and preached to and baptized the crowds going up to Jerusalem to the temple of the Lord. The clothes he wore, his style of life set him apart from everyone else.
John didn’t care how he looked or what people thought of him. He certainly didn’t choose an easy place to be, a desert place. Later, Jesus praised his strength and determination.
To know who you are, you need to listen to God’s call, and evidently John did that. To speak the truth courageously, you need to depend on God’s strength, and evidently John did that too. He became a voice for God, even if he sounds at times like a drill sergeant readying people for the battle of the last days. He said unpopular things to powerful people and faced the consequences. Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea, arrested him and put him to death.
We’re like John whenever we ask God, “Who am I?” and listen for an answer. We’re like him whenever we use bravely the voice God gives us.
At the Masses I celebrated on Easter Sunday following the homily I cast holy water on the congregation after we renewed our baptismal promises. We renounced Satan and said we believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his son, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Yes, we believe in God’s church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Then, I went through the congregation sprinkling them with water, the sign of life, the sign poured out on us at our baptism. I tried not to leave anyone out.
Of course the church was more full on Easter. Some I knew smiled when I sprinkled them generously with the water. Many I didn’t recognize, and I wondered what they thought of it all. The kids squinted when the water hit their faces. Some devoutly made the sign of the cross, some seemed a little uncomfortable.
Easter’s more than hearing something; it’s believing what we hear. Does the water fall on rock and hard ground as well as on good soil I wondered? God promises to “pour out water” on his people, the scriptures say. It’s a generous gesture God makes. Water, too, makes its way we know. It’s everywhere in God’s creation. We hardly realize how present it is in us; it’s there in every tissue of our bodies. God is there in us all, seen and unseen.
So the rite of the church says: Sprinkle them all with water, and this I did.
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.
The tower attests the importance of the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.
In the Jordan River, God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.
We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:
Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.
In the easter season the Risen Christ comes to us in signs and sacraments. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is one of his signs, but let’s not forget the Sacrament of Baptism, another gift we receive from the Risen Lord. He blesses us in water.
Water is a sign of death and of life, says Saint Basil the Great.
“Like a tomb, the water receives the body, symbolizing death; while the Spirit pours in the quickening power, renewing our souls from the deadness of sin into their original life. This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the water bringing the necessary death while the Spirit creates life within us…
“ Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the status of adopted children our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory – in a word, our being brought into a state of all fullness of blessing both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us. Through faith we behold the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, but we still have to wait for the full enjoyment of them. If such is the promise, what will the perfection be like? If these are the first fruits, what will be the complete fulfillment?” Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit
In the encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis tells Christians to let the sacraments teach them respect and reverence for creation. Water, bread, wine, oil–sacramental signs– bring us into the divine mysteries, but they also call us to care for the created world, our common homes.
Water, for example, is the sign of the sacrament of baptism. It’s more than what we drink. In the bible it’s a sign of life and chaos. In the beginning, God moves over the chaotic, formless waters to form a world that good. (Genesis 1, 1-2)
Because it symbolizes the life and chaos found in the world, it’s no wonder that Jesus begins his ministry by going down into the waters of Jordan River. I doubt the Jordan was sparkling clean then. Judging by the river we see today, it was likely always muddied. It was muddied then as now, muddied as human life is muddied then as now.
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered human experience and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches, especially, see the waters of the Jordan, changed and blessed by the Word made flesh, flowing all over the world. Wherever human life is, wherever life of any kind is found, there is water. It’s a sign of God’s blessing.
Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it also has its chaotic nature. In the gospels it threatened the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”
The scriptures say Jesus is revealed as he goes into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. Jesus continually reveals his power over water. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.
Let’s not forget either, that water today plays a major role in climate change. In the last century the sea level globally has risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years it has risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.
This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.
Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.