by Fr. Stephen Freeman
This week, the Church moves from the feast of Christmas to the feast of Theophany – the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. The intent of this feast is not to celebrate a succession of historical events (the Baptism of Christ is at least 30 years later than His birth). Rather this feast takes us into the depths of the mystery of Christ and His salvation of the world.
Many Christians, reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s Baptism, are not sure what to make of the event. They accept Christ’s own explanation to St. John, “It is necessary to fulfill all righteousness,” though they are not entirely sure what He means by this. They have no particular understanding of why Christ submitted Himself to this action of John (it was not required by the Law – but is rather a prophetic action on the part of St. John).
St. John himself does not seem to understand the purpose of Christ’s Baptism. He is told that
“whomever you see the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain”
is the Messiah – but he is given little information beyond that. Witnessing Christ’s Baptism and the Spirit resting upon Him, he hears the voice,
“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”
(Matthew, Mark and Luke all bear witness to the voice).
The Church later celebrates this manifestation of the Trinity (Christ in the water, the Spirit descending, the Voice of the Father – hence the title “Theophany”).
But with the text alone, on its literal level, we are left with a mystery, without context or meaning. The Tradition of the Church, however, sees the Baptism of Christ in the context of Pascha (Easter) as it sees everything in the context of Christ’s Pascha. Christ’s Baptism is a foreshadowing (and on more than a literary level) of His crucifixion and descent into Hades (just as our own Baptism is seen by St. Paul as a Baptism into Christ’s “death and resurrection”).
Such possibilities of multiple meanings and revelations of greater meanings within the literal telling of the story suggests that the world itself is not to be comprehended entirely in its literal manifestation. Something more is at work, particularly in the workings of God.
Fr. Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:
If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.
I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them. The level of the letter itself (the meaning of literal) was but a mere surface. Something greater was to be found within and beneath.
I have written about this topic from time to time under the heading of iconicity – a word used to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. In our secularized world, it is this flat, non-referential world that has become the common world of believer and unbeliever alike. Non-believers may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”
The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.
To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father.
“No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says.
For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).
And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.
The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.
St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied,
“My book, O philosopher, is the world.”
St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation:
“For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).
This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.
The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.
At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.