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Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
 Archdiocese of the Western United States





Life of Jesus







The Day of Denho, Theophany, Epiphany

January,5 2017

Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22; John 3
In our Syriac Orthodox Church the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on 6 January; whereas in the Latin Tradition it is celebrated on another day. It is known in Syriac as Denho (Luke).

The Syriac term Denho itself may be related to the word for the act of diving into water, as we see Jesus descending into the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Other names for this feast are “Epiphany” and “Theophany.” Both terms are based on Greek words which together mean “manifestation,’ i.e., of a God.

“Epiphany” means a manifestation in a more general way; we even speak today of “having an epiphany” when we get a flash of insight. Obviously, though, in a Christian liturgical context such as this feast, we understand that the Godhead is being revealed in Jesus. He of course was always God, but at the Jordan the Gospel writers are showing us that he is being revealed as such.

“Theophany” is more religiously explicit. This word comes from two Greek words—originally in pagan Greek culture—that mean that a god is revealed (Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, et al.). In Christian terms the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Patriarchs) is revealed in Jesus.

All three words—Denho, Epiphany and Theophany—are proper terms. However, as Eastern Christians we should prefer Theophany, and as Syriac Christians we should know and use Denho.

Taking the Baptism of Jesus as a model, the Church celebrates our new life of Baptism and Chrismation in this Season. For some Syriac Churches, this season may be the traditional time of reception of catechumens (people who are being instructed in the faith) into the Church. In Syriac culture many people wait to have their babies initiated (i.e., baptized and chrismated) on or after Denho. However, for all Syriac Christians, Denho is a time to reflect on the consequences of at least the first two stages of our Initiation, namely, what happened to us by being baptized (incorporation into the Church, the Body of Christ; and the door to life in the Holy Trinity being opened); and in Chrismation and outpouring of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, understanding, courage, counsel, piety and holy fear), leading us to experience the Fruit of the Holy Spirit (joy, peace, love, gentleness, self-control, patience, kindness, faith, etc.).”

How about Baptism of our Lord?
If baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus insist on being baptized by his cousin, John? And if baptism, as St. Peter wrote, "now saves you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21), why would the Messiah deem it appropriate, even necessary, to be baptized? What, was the point of the Lord's baptism in the Jordan River?

These and related questions fascinated and perplexed many of the early Church fathers and theologians. The baptism of Christ, writes Fr. Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B., in his study of the topic, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (The Liturgical Press, 1996), "was widely discussed in all the currents of theological reflection" in the early Church, "without doubt partly because of the problems it posed." From this discussion emerged many helpful theological insights.

St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), one of the first great apologists, addressed the baptism in his Dialogue with Trypho. He emphasized that the Son had no need to be baptized - just as he had no need to be born, to suffer, or die - but did so in order to reveal himself to mankind; the baptism, in other words, was the messianic manifestation, a sign for the Church first, and then the world. When Jesus came to the waters, St. Justin wrote, "He was deemed a carpenter," but the proclamation of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove showed him to be far more than a mere worker of wood.

In his famous work, Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus (d. c. 202) focused on the participation of those who believe in Christ in the anointing of the Savior. The connection between the baptism and anointing - itself an essential Messianic concept - is already evident in the New Testament, as heard in today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles: "…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power." This same anointing, St. Irenaeus wrote, is given to those who are baptized into Christ. The Holy Spirit, having descended upon the Son, has become "accustomed in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ."

Others delved into the mystery and meaning of the Jordan River, which was already, at the time of Christ, the site of many key events in the history of Israel. St. Hippolytus (d. c. 236) referred to "the Grand Jordan"; Origen (d. 254) wrote that just as "no one is good, except the one only God, the Father," likewise "no river is good except the Jordan." St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 394), in his treatise, On the Baptism of Jesus, wrote, "For Jordan alone of rivers, receiving in itself the first-fruits of sanctification and benediction, conveyed in its channel to the whole world, as it were from some fount in the type afforded by itself, the grace of Baptism." Just as Joshua had entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan, Jesus opened the way to heaven by entering and dividing the same waters.

St. Ephrem (d. 373) wrote a beautiful hymn in which he connected the baptism of Jesus with the womb of Mary and the sacrament of the Eucharist: "See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you! See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!" Christ, the Light of the World, dwelt first in the womb of the Virgin - who was thus "baptized" by her Son - and then in the womb of the Jordan; he emerged from both as the Incarnate Word, the Savior of mankind. Those who are baptized thus become the children of Mary and partakers of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of her Son.

The lessons Jesus teaches through His conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3:
I. Every person must experience a spiritual birth comparable to his or her physical birth. There must come a time in a person's life when that person surrenders the control of himself or herself entirety to God. Self-control is displaced by divine control. Jesus Christ Himself becomes the author of the surrendered person’s new existence.
2. Likewise, the Jewish religion of which Nicodemus was an exemplary teacher requires fulfillment and perfection in Jesus Christ, who is the Messiah it has always foretold.
3. The new birth in Jesus Christ is not offered only to the Jews, but to people all over the world. The Jews are not alone God's chosen people. It is the will of God that all the world should be saved. Thus a Jew with a Greek name furnishes Jesus the occasion to proclaim that He is the Savior of Jew and Greek alike, indeed of the whole world.
4. The mission of Jesus is positive. He does not come as a judge to condemn but as a redeemer with the power to reclaim and transform (3:17).
5. However, for this redemption and reclamation to take place, people must be willing to accept Him as truth and light, as the very Word of the Father in its final and perfect form (3:21).

God's Word spoken to the Jews is that ancestry and race, law and tradition are not enough. Exclusiveness has no place in the divine economy. Salvation comes now not just to them but to them along with everybody else through Jesus Christ.

In John 3:25-30, John the Baptist confirmed the message Jesus had delivered from God to His own people. He did this, not by reference to the message, but rather to the person who delivers the message. John the Baptist's testimony was always and invariably to the messenger, not what the messenger says and does. He never departed from his divinely appointed role as messenger of the Messiah.

In the synoptic Gospels, it is the Baptist himself who is dubious about Jesus and sends his disciples to gain confirmation of His authenticity. In the Fourth Gospel, it is the other way around. The Baptist's disciples, after a discussion with the Jews, ask him his studied opinion of Jesus and the validity of Jesus' ministry. In response to this inquiry, John the Baptist makes the ringing and thunderous declaration: "The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand." (3:35). Then, having finished the mission God gave him to do and as if to dismiss himself from the stage of history, John the Baptist confesses: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30). There is no more for the messenger to say to the Jews. The full message of God is now being given to them in the person of God's own incarnate Word.

When the associates of John the Baptist complain that all are now going to Jesus, John in his characteristic humility exclaimed that he was not the Messiah but only the messenger sent to prepare His way. John describes the Messiah as the Bridegroom and himself as the friend of the Bridegroom. The image of marriage and the wedding feast is used throughout the scriptures to describe God's joy in His people, who are regarded as His bride. As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:5). John acted as the best man in arranging the marriage and in making preparations for the marriage feast. John and his disciples rejoice that the Bridegroom has come to make His bride, the church, ready for the marriage feast. We see this fulfilled in the New Jerusalem in the marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride (see Revelations 21-22). Do you look with joyful anticipation to the consummation of God's plan for His people at the end of the ages?

The Jews understood that God gave a certain portion of His Spirit to His prophets. When Elijah was about to depart for heaven, his servant Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9). Jesus tells His disciples that they can believe the words He speaks because God the Father has poured His Spirit on Him in full measure, without keeping anything back.

The function of the Holy Spirit is to reveal God's truth to us. When we receive the Holy Spirit He enables us to recognize and understand God's truth. Jesus is the Word of God and He gives us His Holy Spirit so that we can recognize His truth and live according to it. God's truth has consequences and He gives us the freedom to choose how we will respond. The choice He gives us has eternal consequences -- everlasting life or everlasting death.

God challenged His people in the Old Covenant: See I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. ...I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him" (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). And He issues the same challenge to the people of the New Covenant today. Do you weigh the consequences of your choices? Do they lead you towards life or towards death? If you choose to obey God's voice and to do His will, then you will know and experience that life which comes from God Himself. If you choose to follow your own way apart from God and His will, then you choose for death -- a spiritual death which poisons and then kills the soul until there is nothing left but an empty person devoid of love, truth, goodness, purity, peace, and joy.


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The Western Archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, providing spiritual guidance and leadership to the Syriac Orthodox community, is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization comprised of 18 churches and parishes in 17 western states. It was established in 1952 as the Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church encompassing the entire United States and Canada. In November 1995 by the Holy Synod, the Western Archdiocese was formed to exclusively serve the 17 states of the western half United States.

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