The liturgical life of the Church makes a very clear link between the Nativity of Christ, the Theophany at His Baptism, and Pascha. Elements of Pascha run throughout the texts for the services of all three feasts, and even the icons echo one another. There is a recognition that at Nativity, Christ enters the “Winter Pascha,” becoming man, taking on even the weakness of an infant, He has embraced the same weakness that He will exhibit on the Cross. The icon depicts Him wrapped in swaddling cloths, but clearly echoing the winding sheet of His death. He is always shown, born in a cave, not a stable, and the cave resembles nothing so much as the cave of Hades which we see in the icon of His resurrection (the “Harrowing of Hell”).
There is also a hiddenness in His nativity. The Wise Men know, though they followed a star in finding Him. The hymn for the feast notes the irony that God brought the Wise Men who worshipped stars to come to see the Christ by following a star. Wicked King Herod inadvertently found out about a messiah’s birth through the Wise Men’s visit. Shepherds heard the news from angels. Otherwise the event happens in relative quiet. Most especially, it seems to have been an event that was hidden from the adversary. There are no demonic attacks associated with Christ’s birth – only the bloody political murders of innocents in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, the family, warned in a dream, take refuge in Egypt and when they return to Israel, go to Galilee and settle in the obscurity of Nazareth.
At Christ’s Baptism something else happens. He not only submits Himself to Baptism, as though He were a sinner (“Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world”), but immediately after this glorious Theophany (so named because it is a showing forth of God: the Son in His Baptism, the Voice of the Father spoke, and the Spirit in the form of a dove was seen by Christ and St. John the Forerunner), we are told that the Spirit “drove Him into the wilderness.” And there He was tempted by Satan. Though he gains victories over each temptation, the whole of His ministry will be a confrontation with the powers of evil. It is clear that His Baptism, His entering into the waters, not only foreshadows His entry into Hades and His triumph (“He crushed the heads of the dragons”) but it also served notice to Hell that the battle was begun. Thereafter, when approaching a city, it is not unusual for Christ in the gospels to be confronted by a demoniac who knows already Who He is. Human beings may have argued and discussed the matter – but Hell knew.
And yet at the final Theophany – at His Pascha – though Hell knew Who He Was – it did not realize the consequences of His death. What seemed like victory was, in fact, taking the untakeable into the depths of Hell. Hell could not contain Him nor prevent Him from smashing its gates and making a way to the resurrection for all. And after this event, everyone knows – or may know. What has been whispered in the corner can now be shouted from the rooftop.
But we live somewhere between Theophany and Pascha, it seems to me. Pascha has come and nothing can change that. I can stand in the Divine Liturgy and the full promise of Pascha is given to me. I am in heaven and I eat the bread of angels. But on a daily basis I am one who has just been Baptized. Driven by the Spirit into the world I wrestle with temptations. Sometimes I fall, and yet, by grace I manage to stand up again. This is the battle and it is every day and unrelenting. And there is no promise that life will be otherwise. “For whoever would be my disciple must take up His cross and follow me.”
Throwing the cross into the river today was a great joy. Shouting for all the world to hear: “Marvelous are Thy works, O Lord, and there are no words that are sufficient to hymn Thy wonders!” Watching the cross splash and to think of the crashing that occurred in Hell as the Crucified entered the darkness of its domain. “Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” A blinding light.
But walking away from the river was also a reminder that I return to the wilderness where the battle goes on. Today I will take up my cross, renouncing Satan and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride. Breathe and spit on him. And take up the cross again and walk again until the wilderness is finished and all of creation is swallowed up in the victory of Pascha – the last great Theophany. Glory to God.