Both the psalms and Isaiah speak eloquently of the dangers of the sea. They speak of the watery Leviathan, a sea monster that threatens chaos and destruction. And whereas in the book of Job the watery Leviathan becomes the most potent sign of God’s mysterious grandeur, the greatest and most dangerous of his works; in the book of Genesis it is reduced to a mere play-thing for the divine, just one tiny aspect of God’s immense creative work. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament we find God walking through the waters in both creation and redemption as chaos is tamed and peaceful order is restored.
These themes are taken up again in the Gospels. This time the sense of God’s presence bringing peace and clam can be seen in Jesus’ stilling of the storm and as he walks on the waters. Here the gospel writers are asserting that God is fully active in Jesus, walking through the chaotic waters as our champion, speaking peace into our troubled world and troubled lives. And strangely in the Book of Revelation as the vision of the new heaven and the new earth is given, the we find the enigmatic promise given that ‘there will be no sea’. Having experienced the immense beauty of the Indian ocean in all its turquoise splendor I would be very upset if there was to be no sea in the new creation, but John means something different. He’s picking up the themes of the Old Testament where the waters represent chaos and threat and is arguing that when all things are made new there will be no more threat of violence but only the reality of blessing and peace.
In our bulletin today there is a copy of a Coptic icon of the baptism of Christ. This icon draws all these themes together in a meditation on Jesus’ baptism or what the Coptic and Eastern Churches call the Theophany of Christ. Here they explore the gospel passages in all their mythical resonance, as Jesus is seen as the first of the new humanity, descending into the chaotic waters of violence and death, and like God of old, walking through those waters to bring redemption and new creation. The early Eastern Fathers speak of the fire being immersed in the waters, the purifying and passionate presence of God setting alight the watery depths of human sin, purging and purifying. If you look closely you can see the fishy monsters of chaos around Christ, this time domesticated and friendly as they are tamed by Christ’s healing and saving work. John the Baptist can be seen on the right of the icon, as usual gesturing to Christ as the one who shows us what real humanity is like, and on the left the angels wait to minister to him as he steps out of the swirling waters. Over everything hovers the divinely creative Spirit, once more brooding over the waters just as it did in Genesis at the moment of creation.
Proclus of Constantinople draws out the mythic poetry of Christ’s baptism as he contrasts the feast of theophany, in which Christ enters the waters as an adult, and the feast of Christmas in which he appears as a tiny infant. This is what he has to say:
Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sin and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of all people. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.
For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Saviour, and the whole world is filled with joy. Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.
On the feast of the Saviour’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Epiphany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.
At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness. In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father. At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.
Come then and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.
Today every creature shouts in resounding song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…
Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who was baptised. In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odour of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove, reveals the Lord of mercy.
On this Sea Sunday as we remember those who risk their lives in the chaotic beauty of the waters and we celebrate the one who sanctified those same waters, we can know that Christ walks with us right into the chaos and threat of our lives, promising to be with us, ‘the fire immersed in the water.’ AMEN.
Fr Ryan Green