FROM ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY
January 6, A. D. 2019
The Theophany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics,
and Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America (New York):
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17
The Nativity stories Matthew placed at the beginning of his Gospel are a prologue to his presentation of the Gospel message. It is important for our understanding today that we understand that the Gospels were not written to be history as we write history. They were written to proclaim Jesus as the Savior of the world all people in the world, not just the Jews. Again, we must always keep before us the fact that until the resurrection, no one was really sure who Jesus was. Go back to the Resurrection stories: no one expected the resurrection. That is the very reason why the resurrection was discovered.
The women were going to the dead body of Jesus to prepare it so that it could have a proper burial -- something that could not happen when Jesus’ body was taken down from the Cross, because of the coincidence of the Sabbath and Passover. When the women went to the grave, they were not expecting Jesus to be alive. But their witness was that his dead body was not there -- because he was risen from the dead. And they saw angels and then Jesus himself and then the disciples also came and believed. This was the beginning of the Gospel the resurrection, NOT the nativity. And the resurrection stories are the oldest segment of the New Testament. When the disciples including the Twelve and the others began to talk about this, they gave such strong testimony that others began to believe in the resurrection. But others said as Matthew also tells that there was a conspiracy and the body had been stolen. Then the details of the Passion Story were put together. (I refer you to Fr. Raymond Brown’s two volume work, The Death of the Messiah.) The purpose of the Passion narrative was to show that there is no doubt whatever that Jesus was put to death, publicly and lots of people saw his death. Again, more people began to believe and to fill them in on who Jesus was and why he was killed and why he is indeed the Messiah, other events that happened during the period of his ministry were recalled. As time went on, and as people meditated on the events of Jesus life, death and Resurrection, it became evident that while Jesus was an ordinary Galilean (and therefore an inheritor of the desert tradition) he was more. And so the Christological debates began, debates that ended with the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Matthew wrote his Gospel, according to many experts, including Father Brown, to a very Jewish oriented group. It was important to him and to them that Jesus be seen as fulfilling all of the Old Testament expectations for the messiah. And so Matthew begins his Gospel which the church places first by giving the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. If one reads Matthew from the beginning, it is impossible to miss that Jesus is the long expected Messiah; and he is also the Son of God. His connection with his people is much the same as was the relationship of Moses; except that Jesus is even closer to God. Matthew wanted to make it abundantly clear that Jesus was indeed “from God.”
When we were children, most of us were taught that the Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his ministry; and indeed, most commentators still say that. And, frankly, there is no reason not to presume this. However, while I think Matthew in fact does intend this, I believe that he means much more than we usually see.
Remember how Jews are identified? To be a Jew at this time, one had to have a Jewish mother. But in order for a child to belong to a family (a tribe) the father had to acknowledge the child as his own. That is how Matthew’s Prologue makes Jesus both Jewish and a descendant of the Royal King David. Mary’s delivery of the child makes Jesus Jewish: Joseph’s acknowledgment of Jesus adopts the child into the family of David. But there is another issue in the promulgation of the Gospel. Remember, Matthew wrote his Gospel between 80 and 90 AD, 50 to 60 years after the Resurrection. Jesus now was clearly accepted as both Messiah and the Son of God. To make this clear, Matthew does two things. First, he has God also acknowledge Jesus as his own Son, thus giving meaning to the Virginal Conception of Jesus. So when, at the Baptism, God says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is Matthew’s way of telling everyone that Jesus is the Son of God. Then the rest of Matthew’s Gospel tells how Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies and expectations that the Jewish people had for the Messiah.
Ah, but there is more. The first lesson to learn is the first of what we call the Servant Poems in Isaiah. These four poems are embedded in various sections of the second part of Isaiah. There was much discussion of these poems: what did they mean? To whom did they refer? Before Jesus, there is much difficulty with this, because in the last poem the Servant suffers on behalf of Israel. This is a foreign concept. But not to the first Christians: the Passion of Jesus made it very clear who the servant was: Jesus the Messiah. Our reading said. “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him” the word for ‘servant’ in the Greek version of the Old Testament can easily be translated as “child” or “son.” Thus for Matthew’s readers, this reading tells more than we are likely to have seen. And that is why Matthew quotes it at the Baptism of Jesus.
Baptism for Jesus, however, is not the same as is Baptism for you and me. Those baptized by John the Baptist were dipped into the water on the Transjordan side of the river, and came up on the Israeli side to use today’s reference points. This is how the Jews, led by Joshua after the death of Moses, came into the Promised Land - through the Jordan River. “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Jewish name “Joshua!” which, of course, means “Savior.” So Jesus assumes the whole history of the Jewish people by his baptism, and shows that it is through him that one enters into the new life in the Promised Land, the rule of God, the kingdom of God, in the heart. The Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus makes real all the promises of the Torah. The Incarnation, then, is the complete fulfillment of the Old Testament.
We cannot stop here, however. For the fullest sense of all this comes at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus is raised from the dead and appears to the disciples. Then, (on Easter night in Matthew), Jesus ascends to the Father. Just before the ascension Jesus gives what most of us learned as the “Great Commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is because of that commission that we are here today.
We gather in Liturgy because we too were baptized and chrismated. And our Baptism was in fact similar to the Baptism of Jesus. We made a solemn commitment to God in Christ at our Baptism, promising that we would live our lives as Christ himself. For we died in baptism to our natural life; and we are raised in our new life, the life of Jesus, into whose Body we are inserted as cells. We willingly made ourselves servants, or slaves, of Jesus, and devoted all of our life to him.
As the Liturgical Year continues, we shall see how the Manifestation of Jesus to the Jews, which we saw in the Prologue to Matthew’s Gospel, is expanded to the Gentiles. Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, also reinterprets the Old Testament to include any who will take up the Cross and believe in Jesus, who is raised from the dead. To be live in Jesus is to reform our life, to live it on a different plane from those who do not believe in Jesus. We live our lives as baptized into Jesus. We pass from the land of terror and fear into the land of love and God. We do this through the life giving water; and it is our faith that brings us to that point. It is fitting that we renew own Baptismal vows as part of that Liturgy in which we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, who brings us into his love.
Faithfully in Christ,
Archbishop of New York
+ + + + +
Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: