January 5, 2021

Homily on Baptism and Repentance for the Eve of Theophany (St. Gregory Palamas)





By St. Gregory Palamas
1. Repentance is the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian way of life, so it is both sought and required before Holy Baptism, in Holy Baptism, and after Holy Baptism. We are asked to express our repentance in words at the time of our baptism when we are questioned about our good conscience towards God, make a covenant with Him and promise to live a God-pleasing life that bears witness to our love for Him. For, having believed, we promise allegiance to Christ, Who is good and surpasses all goodness, renouncing the evil and thoroughly depraved enemy, and we take it upon ourselves to hold with all our strength to God's Commandments, which bring about what is good, and to abstain from evil thought and deed. When asked, we reply, either in person or, as happens in the case of infants being baptized, through our godparents, concerning what we have believed, inwardly accepted and agreed to with our minds. And since, according to the Apostle, "With the heart, man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10), when we make this good confession with our mouth we receive salvation through the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5).

2. As it happens that most people are infants at the time of this divine washing and all that accompanies it, and do not recognize the power of the mystery, let us reveal it in a few words in the hearing of all, as the approaching feast demands. For I think that recalling and elucidating rites performed in divine baptism will bring no small benefit, especially to those who listen with understanding. For if through this reminder we discover that we afterward neglected any of the undertakings made at our baptism, or failed from the very beginning to put certain things into practice, we shall start again by means of repentance.

3. When the bishop learns that someone has come seeking to be baptized, he first rejoices inwardly, in imitation of the Lord Who loves what is good, and gives spiritual thanks to God, Who alone wills and brings about every good thing. Then he calls together the church in his care, that together they might celebrate, and assist in the salvation of the person who has come forward. The bishop stands at the sacred altar with the priests and, afterward after openly expressing his thanksgiving with them, he comes out and asks the candidate with what wish he has come to church. When he replies, either himself or through his godparent, if he is an infant, that he desires to become God's, through His mediation and with His help, and to attain to divine blessings, the bishop tells him, "As you are drawing near to God Who is True, Perfect and Sinless, the manner of your approach, your promise and the way you live from now on must be appropriate: that is to say, full of truth and integrity, and blameless". Having given him guidance on living according to the gospel of Christ, he asks again if he chooses to live such a life. Once the candidate has given his agreement, the bishop seals him with the sign of the Cross, and bids the priests to deem his name worthy of being added to the list, placing him from then on among those being saved, as a lover of the life-giving way of life.

4. Then, having prayed to God once more, the bishop commands that he be stripped of all his clothing and, standing with his face towards the west, that he makes gestures with his hands as though he were pushing Satan away, blow at him and renounce him, and upon questioning to make this renunciation three times. The candidate's nakedness signifies putting off the old man (cf., Ephesians 4:22) and his unholy life, the act of driving someone away with his hands while looking westwards indicates turning away from the darkness of sin; and by blowing he demonstrates that he is breathing out that disposition which is inborn in him because of the former sin, getting rid of it and, as it were, throwing it at the devil as it belongs to him. The threefold declaration of renunciation is the sign of his resolute and perfect escape from God's adversary. Once the person to be baptized has completed these acts, the bishop exhorts him to turn to face the east and, lifting up his hands, to align himself with Christ by responding to three questions. Looking eastwards is a sign that, having fled from evil, he is looking up at the Divine Light; raising his hands symbolizes prayer with boldness; and the threefold confession when he makes his commitment proves the steadfastness of his promise to God.

5. Once he has withdrawn in this way from every evil and run with all his strength to the perfection of goodness, the bishop seals him three times with the Holy Oil of anointing, then lets the priests anoint his whole body. The anointing signifies preparation for holy struggles, and from then on, as the person being baptized sets out in the footsteps of Christ -- the first to be martyred under Pontius Pilate - he is put to death with Him, having become dead to sin in mysterious fashion. Holy Baptism is a symbol of death. After the holy anointing, he is immediately led to the sacred font, which has been thoroughly sanctified beforehand by various holy rites and ablutions. Once he has been brought, the bishop baptizes him by immersing him three times, invoking at each immersion one of the Three Persons whom we worship.

6. Water is a means of cleansing, but not for souls. It can remove dirt from those being baptized, but not the grime that comes from sin. For that reason, the Healer of souls, the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9), Christ, Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), enters the water before us to be baptized, as we celebrate today in advance. He draws the grace of the All-Holy Spirit from above to dwell in the water with Him, so that later when those being baptized as He entered the water, He is there, clothing them ineffably with His Spirit, attaching Himself to them, and filling them with the grace that purifies and illumines reasonable spirits. And this is what the divine Paul referring to: "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27).

7. While the three immersions in the water are also the saving invocation of the Life-Giving Trinity, they represent the Lord's three-day burial. Following this, the person being baptized comes out of the water the same number of times, because otherwise he could not have been submerged three times, but also because this signifies the resurrection from sin of the three parts of the soul, and the return of the mind, soul and body, all three together, to incorruption. Thus in divine baptism both death and life can be seen, the tomb together with the resurrection, just as the Lord, Who "in that He died, He died unto sin once: but in that He liveth, He liveth continuously unto God" (cf. Romans 6:10). And what the Lord had said, that "the prince of this world cometh, and will find nothing in me" (cf. John 14:30), should also apply to us who have been baptized into His death. Having died to sin through divine baptism, we ought to be alive to God through virtue, so that when the prince of darkness comes looking, he may find nothing in us pleasing to him. And as Christ has risen from the dead, "death hath no more dominion over Him" (cf. Romans 6:9), and in the same way we, after being raised from the sinful fall through divine baptism, must strive not to be held fast by sin any longer. "So many of us as we were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death. Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (cf. Romans 6:3-4).

8. For this reason, the bishop, having clothed the person who has been baptized in a radiant white garment, and anointed him with Holy Chrism, and having made him a communicant of Christ's Body and Blood, then send him on his way, showing that he has thenceforth become a child of light, both united in one body with Christ and a partaker of the Holy Spirit. For we are born again (cf. John 3:3-5) and become heavenly sons of God (cf. Roman 8:14-19; Phil. 2:15; I John 3:12) instead of earthly beings, eternal instead of transient. God has mystically implanted heavenly grace in our hearts and set the seal of adoption as sons upon us through anointing with this Holy Chrism, sealing us by means of the All-Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (cf. Ephesians 4:30), provided we keep this confession firm to the end and fulfill our promise through deeds, though we may renew it through repentance if it drifts a little off course. That is why works of repentance are necessary even after baptism. But if they are absent, the words of our promise to God are not only useless but also condemn us. "Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay" (Eccles. 5:5). And, as Saint Peter the leader of the highest company of the Apostles says, "it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb "The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" (2 Peter 2:21-22). Another of the Apostles says, "Shew me thy faith by thy works" (James 2:18), and, "Who is faithful mans? Let him shew his faith by a good manner of life" (cf. James 3:13). The Lord Himself asks, "Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (St. Luke 6:46). He is the Living and True God, and seeks from us truthful promises, and living, and not dead faith: for "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26).

9. As repentance is the beginning and end of the Christian way of life, the Lord's Forerunner and Baptist, who was himself the starting point of this approach to living, preached saying, "repent ye: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). And the Lord Himself, the perfection of all goodness, said the same in His preaching (Matthew 4:17). Repentance means hating sin and loving virtue, turning away from evil and doing good (cf. Psalm 34:14; I Peter 3:11). These acts are preceded, however, by condemning ourselves for our faults, being penitent before God, fleeing to Him for refuge with a contrite heart, and casting ourselves into the ocean of His mercy, considering ourselves unworthy to be counted among His sons. As the prodigal son said when he repented, "Lord, I am not worthy to be called Thy son: make me as one of Thy hired servants" (cf. Luke 15:19).

10. The Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord publicly raised the subject of the Kingdom of Heaven, affirming that it was near so that people might reckon themselves unworthy on account of the greatness of the Divine and Heavenly Kingdom and condemn themselves, which is the beginning of salvation for everyone, and an occasion for returning to God. But he also holds up an ax and fell it (cf. Matthew 3:10). Being hewn down in God's sentence on those who justify themselves and sin without repenting, and, in accordance with this decision, once they have been cut off from the present and future life, they are sent away to dark, unquenchable hell-fire. That is why the Baptist, too, warns that after such people have been cut own, inextinguishable fire receives the, making known in this way the awfulness of God's wrath and that eternal punishment, in order to bring to their senses that insensitivity race and men like them who came later.

11. The Lord's Forerunner did not guide men just to the starting point of repentance, which is keeping away from evil things and profitable contrition of heart, but also sought fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8). What are these? Firstly confession, as practiced by those who came to him at that time. "Then they went out", it says, "and were baptized of him to Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matthew 3:5-6). Next, he looked for righteousness, almsgiving, moderation, love, truthfulness, telling them, "Exact no more than that which is appointed you", "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely" (Luke 3:13,14), and "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do likewise" (Luke 3:11). "For every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low" (Luke 3:5). What is the hidden meaning of valleys being filled in and mountains being brought low? Exactly what the Lord says plainly, "Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:14). The Baptist also says, "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:5-6). Lying, deceit and slander are crooked, and the rough paths are anger, hatred, envy, and remembrance of wrongs, all of which are made straight and level when transformed by the works of repentance. And so "all flesh", that is, every person of every nation and race who straightens and smoothes himself out through repentance, "shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).

12. As I speak these words to you, brethren, I feel no small pain in my soul, that we who were long ago vouchsafed Christian baptism have not yet accomplished those very things which John demanded of those approaching his own baptism. Yet the Lord's baptism, of which we were deemed worthy,  is as far superior to the baptism given by John in those days, as the grace of the Holy Spirit is more excellent than water;and in proof of this the Lord said to His disciples, "John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 1:5). Whereas John baptized so that people would believe in Him who was coming, the Lord transformed John's baptism through Himself, mystically planting within it through Himself the pre-eternal fount of grace. While John was teaching these things and baptizing those who approached, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized by John (Matt. 3:13, Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21, cf. John 1:29-31). He did not come on the twelfth day after His birth, as we now keep this feast, rightly choosing to commemorate each year everything accomplished in the course of the dispensation whereby God became man. He came rather when He had reached thirty years of age, as Luke relates (Luke 3:23), seeming to be one of the crowd, with no indication that He was at all different, in simplicity and utter lowliness and obscurity.

13. John, however, knew through the clear vision of the Spirit that He was drawing near, and said to the multitude, "There standeth one among you, whom ye know not, who is after me," according to His birth and appearance in the flesh, but "was before me" (cf. John 1:26-27, 15), as God, the Word and Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, and now bearing bodily the fullness of the Godhead (Col. 2:9), "the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose" (Luke 3:16). What else can the shoes of the Word of God be except, obviously, the flesh, which He put on for our sake? The strap of these shoes is the way in which His divinity is joined with His flesh, which is beyond words, and which even the highest man born of woman (cf. Matt. 11:11) is inadequate to analyse and clarify. "He", says John, "shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire" (Matt. 3:11); fire, that is to say, which is capable of enlightening and punishing, with each one receiving what is appropriate, according to what his disposition merits. We are all His rational field (1 Cor. 3:9), and He has "the winnowing-fan" for the field "in His land" (Matt. 3:12), meaning the powers who minister to Him and the angels who will serve Him at the coming Judgment, separating the tares from the wheat (cf. Matt. 13:39-42). You should understand His hand to be His power. "And he will purge", it says, "his floor", that is the entire world, "and gather his wheat", those who are fruitful in righteousness, "unto the garner", signifying the heavenly dwellings, "but he will burn up the chaff" as being of no use, meaning those who are barren with regard to virtue, "with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12). If that fire will never be extinguished, it must have inexhaustible fuel, and this shows that damnation is eternal.

14. John was saying such things as this to the crowds before the Lord came to the Jordan and while He was present. When John saw Him bowing down he himself bent low and "forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee" (Matt. 3:14), for I was born from the old seed and am an heir of that fall and the defilement it brought, and I myself need cleansing by You. And You, who took flesh from the Holy Virgin without seed, and who alone, as God, are free from sin, You, Lord, come to me? But as a Master giving orders to his servant the Lord says, "Suffer it to be so now" (Matt. 3:15). He added "now", because after the Lord had been baptized that whole place became a spiritual font, and divine grace encompassed John as well as the others, poured out upon all from that revered body as from a fountain, flowing around all who were worthy, giving divine enlightenment and redeeming them from the ancestral curse.

15. And this is what John himself said after these things, "This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fullness have all we received" (John 1:15-16). "Suffer it to be so now", Jesus tells him, "for thus it becometh us", meaning "Me". These words, too, are spoken to John with authority. "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15), that is, that I may leave no divine commandment undone, thus perfectly justifying human nature and filling it more visibly with divine and eternal grace. For when I receive baptism at your hands, I shall manifestly draw down upon it from above the Spirit of adoption.

16. John, hearing the Master's command, "Suffer it to be so", had nothing to say in reply, and let the Lord be baptized. We shall speak tomorrow of what happened next, for these events belong especially to the appointed feastday.

17. The Spirit comes upon us and departs of His own volition, being of equal might with the Father and the Son. He stays with those who live in repentance, and even if they sin does not leave them, as we have seen from David (2 Sam. 12:1ff, cf. Psalm 51:11), but forsakes those who sin without repenting, as we have found out from Saul (cf.1 Sam. 16:14). So may we all, clinging throughout our lives to the works, words, and thoughts of repentance, have Him always dwelling within us, to give us understanding, care for us, and grant us heavenly salvation, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
From the book Saint Gregory Plamas: The Homilies.