Papal Liturgical message on Feast of Theophany

Sunday January 20, 2019
Papal Liturgical message on Feast of Theophany
Given by Pope Tawadros II on January 18, 2019
From St. Mark Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. May His grace and mercy rest up on us from now and unto eternity, amen.

I congratulate you, beloved ones, on this glorious Feast of Theophany, one of the seven great Major Feasts of the Lord that we celebrate annually. And as with the Feast of Nativity (Christmas) and the Feast of Resurrection, this Feast is also celebrated during an evening Liturgy.

The Feast of Theophany is preceded by two other feasts: the Nativity and the Circumcision, and is followed by another two feasts: the Feast of the Wedding of Cana of Galilee and the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord into the Temple. And these five feasts all occur within a 40-day period, beginning with the Holy Nativity Feast.

The Feast of Theophany is known by different names. It is known as the Feast of Epiphany, the Feast of the Divine Appearance, the Feast of Theophany, the Feast of Lights or the Feast of the Light, or as we call it in our Church, the Feast of The Baptism.

And by calling the Feast of the Theophany the Feast of Lights, we mean that it is a feast of joy. It is a feast of joy. And the joy we celebrate on the Feast of Theophany is a joy that is of historical importance and depth, and it has three aspects to it, so we may also call it, the Feast of a trinity of joy.

There is joy on a historical level, on a Biblical level, and on a spiritual or Church level. I will explain this to you.

On a historical level, the Feast of Theophany is a feast of joy because of the appearing of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a prominent figure in Jewish society, and he was a strange figure among the Jews because he appeared to dress differently and eat differently.

And as we read in the Readings during the month of Kiahk, of the announcement of his arrival to his father, Zechariah the priest, and to his mother Elizabeth, how after many years and many prayers of their asking God to send them an heir.

And God gave a sign to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and at the right time, John the Baptist came, and his arrival was joyous. And his whole family and tribe rejoiced in him, especially being that he came after great desire and many prayers offered by a righteous priest and his righteous wife to give them an heir, and so the joy was very great.

And as our Lord Jesus Christ referred to him, he came to be known as “the greatest among those born of women” (cf. Mt 11:11), and so how great must have his mother, Elizabeth’s joy have been, that He bestowed this title upon her?

And John the Baptist came before Christ and began to cry out a very strange message for that period in time: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2). And he began to walk along the Jordan River and despite his strange appearance, crowds began to follow him and ask him, “What should we do?” And he told them to enter into the Jordan River.

11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit [a]and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. 14 And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” 15 But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
16 When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and [b]He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. 17 And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” 
(Mt 3:11-17)

And so it was that he began to cry out and large multitudes came to him, and although they were bewildered by what this all meant, nevertheless, they were joyous, because according to the Old Testament understanding of that time, they believed that if they repented, their sins would be forgiven.

And the multitudes kept coming to him but because John the Baptist was an honest person, he prophesied before all the multitudes saying, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I.” And this made the multitudes wonder, “What is this that you are doing John, and what is this that you are saying? And who is this One who will come after and be greater than you?” because as I told you, John was a prominent figure in the Jewish community at that time.

And he began to prophesy about the work of the Christ, who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” and that it was the baptism of Christ that would be for the forgiveness of sins; it would be the effective baptism, having the actual power of forgiving sins.

The baptism of John the Baptist was a superficial one, a symbolic one. And so the multitudes came to John, but everyone was talking about what he was doing and how strange it was, but as I told you, it was a joyous thing. This is the joy, on a historical level; the multitudes that came and rejoiced

The next aspect of joy was the Biblical joy, the one recorded in the Holy Bible. The Holy Bible says that every day, people came to John and he baptized them in the water; submerging them and taking them out, and he did this over and over again.

And the Jordan River is not a deep river, maybe one or two meters deep, and those of you who have seen it know that it is both a narrow and shallow river. And in the midst of these multitudes, Christ appeared before John and said to him, “‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him.”

And I want you to notice this about the meeting between John the Baptist and Christ: John the Baptist represents the Old Testament, or the end of the Old Testament, and he meets with the Lord Christ, who began the New Testament.

And this beautiful meeting is an echo of the meeting that happened earlier between their two mothers. If you remember, on the third Sunday of the month of Kiahk we celebrated the Virgin Mary’s visit to St. Elizabeth. Elizabeth was an old woman and the Virgin Mary was a young woman. Elizabeth represents the Old Testament and the Virgin Mary represents the New Testament, and so it was as if the Old Testament was making a handover to the New Testament, exactly as in John the Baptist’s meeting with Christ.

And as you heard in today’s Bible Reading, this meeting was a joyous one. At first John said, “I am not worthy of this mission nor to perform this act,” but in all gentleness Christ said, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” and so John baptized Him.

Also notice that when John prophesied about Christ, he said he would not be worthy to stoop down and tie the sandals of this coming One with his hands, but these unworthy hands which lived a life of humility, were the very hands placed upon Christ to baptize Him.

And so it was that the Lord Christ was baptized, and His baptism was joyous because His baptism was very different than all the other baptisms that had taken place before, because when the Lord Christ entered into the water and was submerged, a dove representing the Holy Spirit came and rested upon Him, and at that moment “the heavens were opened” and a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” - pleased, pleasure; this is joy.

And so this is the Biblical joy, the baptism of the Lord Christ. And this event was clear and apparent, seen by all people. This even was then followed by the temptation and then the public service of the Lord.

And so John the Baptist was the angel that preceded Christ, for he was six months older than Him, but he was also Christ’s witness, because it was he who both baptized Christ and was then later martyred in the famous story, because he declared the truth.

And so this was a time of joy- historically, to announce to people to come, repent, and be baptized in the water, and biblically, as recorded in the story of the baptism of Christ, when everyone heard the heavenly voice saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” for Christ came to fill us with joy.

The third aspect that completes this trinity of joy is the spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is what we all feel when we experience the sacrament of baptism. When a child is baptized their family feels joy, and the day if a child’s baptism is a day of joy. And my brethren, we call the day of baptism the day of heavenly birth.

You have a day of your birth on earth and your earthly birthday is identifiable and important, but you also have another, even more important birthday, which is the day you were born in heaven; the day you were born in heaven, “of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).

And so it is that the sacrament of baptism became the key that opens the spiritual life, the church life, and the life of heaven before us, and so baptism became the gate to all the other Holy sacraments.

And the day of baptism has many beautiful details, like the renouncing of Satan, the refusal of sin, and the acceptance of the faith, which are done by the Godparent or the mother or father, who will hand over the faith to the child, and so it is a day of joy. And we dress the child in white clothing, a symbol of light, and with a red cloth belt, which is a symbol of the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross for the salvation of every human.

And among the joys of baptism is that we are submerged into the baptismal basin, as if descending into the Jordan River, and the priest conducting the baptism submerges the child three times, which is as though the child is being buried, as Saint Paul the Apostle says, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism” (Rom 6:4).

Then a person receives the second sacrament, the sacrament of confirmation, also known as the sacrament of Holy Myron. And the members of his body are consecrated with 36 crosses and so he becomes an ordained person, consecrated, set apart for Christ. And he becomes, to put it plainly, one who belongs to Christ; the property of Christ.

After receiving the graces of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, the graces on the day of baptism are concluded with the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion. By the water we are born, by the oil we are we are confirmed, and by the Eucharist we are nourished, given life, and live.

The first two sacraments are not repeated, but a person continues to partake of the third sacrament, the Eucharist, which is available to him on a daily basis.

And this joy, my brethren, is what we call the joy of repentance. After the baptism of the Lord Christ and the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the Lord Christ made this beautiful statement, which is a spiritual exercise for all of us, He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).

I will say it again, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel,” and you can consider this to be the message of the day of baptism or the glorious Feast of Theophany.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” – and Christ said this two thousand years ago, and so this means that a person should always be ready. So if the kingdom of heaven is at hand, what should I do? He says you have two things to do: the first thing is to repent - and the word repentance here was given in the plural form, in order that we may encourage one another in this repentance, that we may retrieve our white garment which we were given at baptism. And the white garment is a joyous one, so when He says to repent here, it means to restore the joy.

When a person is worried or burdened, or feels despair within his heart or because of something outside him, something is off. And when a person feels that something is off, he can then take account of himself, purify his heart, and then the joy will be restored to him.

And so repentance is linked to joy. When you repent, you will regain your joy. With your repentance you bring the joy back into your life.

So “repent” is the first thing we must do, the second thing is “believe in the gospel,” which means to believe in the Word of God.

One of the wars we face every day is seen in how some people say, “The Bible is such a blessing - nice words, beautiful words, nothing more,” but for you to believe the Bible, and believe the Commandments, and believe the Promises, and believe the Word, this is the great dilemma. But Christ warned us from 2,000 years ago: “Believe in the gospel” - believe in the Commandments, believe in the Promises, trust them – the word ‘believe’ here means ‘trust,’ to be confident.

Be confident and trust the words and the verses and the commandments that you are reading – trust them, believe them, and know that the Bible was not written for a literally or intellectual climax, but it was written for life. It was written for life so that you would live by it, so that you would trust the Word of God, so that you would believe it and use it in your life, for “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

This is the joy of this Feast, this these are the joys of the glorious Feast of Theophany: on the historical level, on the Biblical level and the events, and on the spiritual level found in the sacrament of it.

And so my brethren, we rejoice on this glorious Feast. Sharing me in this joy are many beloved Bishops present with us today: His Grace Anba Pavli, His Grace Anba Ilarion, and His Grace Anba Hermina, as well as our beloved priest fathers, deacons, Church servants, Church council members, those here in Alexandria, and all those present with us today. We all rejoice and are glad together, with you.

And we always pray that God would keep the joy in our lives, and we pray continually that He would protect our country from all harm, and that He would give us the grace of perfect peace in our lives, in our homes, in our churches, and in our land. We pray that He would always give us to truly rejoice, and that feasts do not become merely passing occasions, but that we would abide in the joys of the feasts throughout the days of our lives.

May Christ bless us with every spiritual blessing and may He give us grace in every age and in every place. We also send our greetings to all our churches outside of Egypt, everywhere, to the Metropolitans, Bishops, priests, deacons, churches and monasteries, in the four corners of the world. We send them greetings from here, from the land of St. Mark the Apostle, in Alexandria. And we pray that Christ would always keep you in His peace and that we would all enjoy His Presence in our lives.

To Him be all the glory and honor, from now and to eternity. Amen.