Talking to the assembled children for this Sunday’s homily, my priest, Fr. John, impressed upon them the power of water. These monthly children’s homilies often offer simple takeaways that I had never thought of. This one was no exception.
If some hapless soul had called upon me to expound on a theme for Theophany, I would’ve reached for something grandiose about the Trinity or Christ’s mission on earth or the manifestation of God. In short, I would’ve written a check I couldn’t cash. I wouldn’t have thought about just talking about the nature of water, even with the not-so-subtle hint of the 13 Old Testament readings in the Vespers service to point the way. In those readings, we hear that water has been used in miracles of the Bible, from the River Jordan to the Red Sea to the Waters of Mara. So on one hand, those Christians who are troubled by church sacraments might ask why God would use water as a vehicle of grace, but given that history, we might ask just as easily, why wouldn’t God use water?
Father John assembled the children and asked them to think about what water is, what you can do with it and what it can do for us. There were the usual answers about washing, cleaning, drinking. These are the safe answers; we need water to stay alive. The more difficult answer is that water can also kill us. We can drown in it and it features in most of the deadly natural disasters that are visited upon us. He ended simply (and I’ll be a total kiss-up and link to the homily HERE; it really is worth a listen): Remember how powerful those waters are, not for death, but for life.
That reminds me of something about the typical icon of the feast that I was taught. In every icon of the baptism of Christ, you have Christ and John the Baptist, of course. But you also often have figures down at Christ’s feet, in the water. One figure or two, riding on strange beasts or fish. These (so I was told) represent the pagan god of the river. When Christ is baptized, the old gods are put to flight. When Christ’s mission on earth begins, their demise begins with it, and they are terrified. The same waters of baptism that are life to us are death to the powers of evil.
What an amazing feast Theophany is. And how right it feels that it comes along in the dead of winter. It’s true that here in Las Vegas, I’m not feeling the effects of winter like my friends in the Midwest. But I can still remember what it was like, and say with the psalmist:
He who grants your borders peace … (3a)
Giving snow like wool,
Sprinkling mist like ashes,
Casting His ice like morsels,
Who shall withstand His winter?
He shall send His word and melt them;
His wind shall blow and the waters shall flow. (5-7)