Blessing the Waters
Today we celebrate the liturgical feast of the Sunday before Theophany. Because is also the Eve of Theophany the Typikon directs all parishes to conduct the Great Agiasmos. I have just used a few words that one might not be familiar with. So let’s go back with and explain a little further. ‘Liturgical’ comes from the word ‘liturgy’ but it is broader than liturgy and means ‘worship’ in general. ‘Theophany’ literally means the ‘manifestation of God’ and refers specifically to the feast of Christ’s Baptism, which we celebrate every January 6th, tomorrow. ‘Typikon’ literally means ‘ritual’ and in the context of the Church refers to the pattern of rituals in conducting worship. The Orthodox Church has numerous books filled with readings, hymns, prayers and worship services. However, there is one book, titled the ‘Typikon’, that prescribes what readings, hymns, prayers and worship services are to be combined and used on any particular day of any year. There are very few people in the world who know the Typikon well enough to understand and use it. Therefore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate publishes an ‘Hemerologion’ that distills the intricacies of the Typikon into a simple guidebook for conducting worship services.
Pardon my tangent on the Typikon. Returning to our lexicon. Ah, there I did it again. I introduced a new word that I assume everyone knows. ‘Lexi’ is Latin for ‘word.’ Many of us know that ‘lexicon’ is another word for ‘dictionary.’ It is also the root of another word we use in church circles: ‘lectionary’ which means a set of readings. Ok, let’s focus on our last word of the day, which is the subject of my sermon, which I hope to get to any second now. ‘Agiasmos’ comes from the word ‘agios/agia’ that means holy. ‘Agiasma’ means ‘sanctification’ or ‘to make holy.’ ‘Agiasmos’ means the sanctified or holy water. As I said before, today we get to celebrate the ‘Mega Agiasmos’ or Great Holy Water Blessing service. So, let’s talk about what is and what it means for us.
Theophany is the Feast of Christ’s Baptism. We hear in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8) that John the Forerunner “came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins…and everyone from Judea and Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River confessing their sins” (vv.4-5). Later in the same passage John speaks, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I…I indeed baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv.7-8). John, of course, is referring to Jesus Christ. And we know that immediately after he says this, Jesus comes to John and asks John to baptize Him. John is resistant. Why? Because he knows that Jesus is the coming Messiah who is without sin. That’s why John wants Jesus to baptize him instead. Why would Jesus need to be baptized if baptism is for repentance and remission of sins? Well we can ask that question about nearly everything that Jesus experienced. For example, why was Jesus circumcised if circumcision was going to be done away with less than twenty years after His Resurrection?
Jesus was baptized for four reasons and these two reasons generally apply to everything Jesus did. Number one: Jesus is the only person who perfectly fulfills the Law of Moses. This illuminates Jesus words to John when he does not want to baptize Him. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Because Jesus is the only person who perfectly fulfills the Law, He shows Himself to be the Giver of the Law but also reveals His authority to critique the Law and those hypocrites who emphasize the letter of the Law and not the spirit of the Law.
Number two: Jesus was baptized in order to be revealed as the true Son of God, as witnessed by God the Father in the voice that came from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt.3:17). At the same instance, Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, because the Holy Spirit of God descends upon Him in the form of a dove.
Number three: Jesus was baptized in order to change the nature of baptism itself. At that time, baptism was like the Sacrament of Confession is for us today--an expression of repentance, the sorrow for sins and desire to change one’s life. Likewise, baptism then and confession now are for the forgiveness and remission of sins. However, after Jesus is baptized, baptism becomes the supreme and unique liturgical ritual by which believers are joined to Jesus Christ, drowning to their sin and the fallen human nature and then being resurrected to new life.
Number four: Jesus was baptized to sanctify all of creation. In other words, Jesus did not need to be baptized because He was without sin. Rather, creation itself needed to be baptized by Him. Thus, when He, the Divine Son of God descends into the river Jordan, instead of being washed and cleansed by its waters, Jesus, along with the Holy Spirit, cleanses and sanctifies the waters of the Jordan River and through the waters, sanctifies and cleanses all the rest of creation. In one of the prayers that will follow in the Holy Water Blessing service the priest says, “You sanctified the streams of Jordan by sending down from heaven Your All-holy Spirit and You smashed the heads of the dragons that lurked there.”
So, every year at Theophany, we not only commemorate the event of Christ’s baptism but more importantly, we invite Christ and the Holy Spirit to descend again into the waters of creation, especially this water offered to God in His house/temple. And then we take that newly sanctified holy water and we sprinkle it upon the floor, the walls, the icons, the altar, and upon all of us so that we can be sanctified by it also. To further underline the point, we drink the water into ourselves to be sure that God’s holiness penetrates into every fiber of our being. And then we take the Holy Water home with us and sprinkle the floor, walls, icons and altars of our homes, even our cars and our businesses, so that everything can be dedicated or re-dedicated to God. Many invite the priest to their homes to celebrate the Mikro Agiasmos or Small Holy Water Blessing service, a much shorter service but one in which the priest repeats the ritual that began in God’s house in the home of the faithful.
As we conclude today, let’s go to a deeper level, the ritual of the Holy Water is a renewal of our baptism. Some people say “everything is the same in the Orthodox Church. Nothing ever changes.” On one hand that’s not true at all because if you look closely at the Typikon we mentioned above, very few liturgical services are the same. Each one has a unique combination of hymns, prayers and readings. On the other hand it is true, because a majority of the services and rituals are the same week to week, month to month and year to year. Why is that? Why do things stay the same so much? It’s because we are the ones who are supposed to be changing, repenting, growing, and maturing. That’s one of the biggest criticisms of modern styles of worship, they change so much that they become like entertainment which distracts the worshippers from their own need to change. The Book of Hebrews, says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (13:8). If we remain the same, then we are not renewing our baptism. The water that we sprinkle and drink today cannot magically change us into holy people unless we are repenting and confessing our sins in an Orthodox manner and ritual every day. Therefore, I invite you to invite me to your homes to bless you and your families with the Holy Water of Theophany. In addition, I invite your to renew your baptism through the Sacrament of Confession in order to receive cleansing and forgiveness of sins, in order to be guided into an ever deepening relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of His Holy Spirit, in order to continually become sons and daughters of God the Father. Blessed Theophany and New Year! Amen!