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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Discourse on the Holy Theophany (Hippolytus)

The Discourse on the Holy Theophany

1. Good, yea, very good, are all the works of our God and Saviour— all of them that eye sees and mind perceives, all that reason interprets and hand handles, all that intellect comprehends and human nature understands. For what richer beauty can there be than that of the circle of heaven? And what form of more blooming fairness than that of earth's surface? And what is there swifter in the course than the chariot of the sun? And what more graceful car than the lunar orb? And what work more wonderful than the compact mosaic of the stars? And what more productive of supplies than the seasonable winds? And what more spotless mirror than the light of day? And what creature more excellent than man? Very good, then, are all the works of our God and Saviour. And what more requisite gift, again, is there than the element of water? For with water all things are washed and nourished, and cleansed and bedewed. Water bears the earth, water produces the dew, water exhilarates the vine; water matures the grain in the ear, water ripens the grapecluster, water softens the olive, water sweetens the palm-date, water reddens the rose and decks the violet, water makes the lily bloom with its brilliant cups. And why should I speak at length? Without the element of water, none of the present order of things can subsist. So necessary is the element of water; for the other elements took their places beneath the highest vault of the heavens, but the nature of water obtained a seat also above the heavens. And to this the prophet himself is a witness, when he exclaims, Praise the Lord, you heavens of heavens, and the water that is above the heavens.

2. Nor is this the only thing that proves the dignity of the water. But there is also that which is more honourable than all— the fact that Christ, the Maker of all, came down as the rain, and was known as a spring, and diffused Himself as a river, and was baptized in the Jordan. For you have just heard how Jesus came to John, and was baptized by him in the Jordan. Oh things strange beyond compare! How should the boundless River that makes glad the city of God have been dipped in a little water! The illimitable Spring that bears life to all men, and has no end, was covered by poor and temporary waters! He who is present everywhere, and absent nowhere— who is incomprehensible to angels and invisible to men— comes to the baptism according to His own good pleasure. When you hear these things, beloved, take them not as if spoken literally, but accept them as presented in a figure. Whence also the Lord was not unnoticed by the watery element in what He did in secret, in the kindness of His condescension to man. For the waters saw Him, and were afraid. They wellnigh broke from their place, and burst away from their boundary. Hence the prophet, having this in his view many generations ago, puts the question, What ails you, O sea, that you reddest; and you, Jordan, that you were driven back? And they in reply said, We have seen the Creator of all things in the form of a servant, and being ignorant of the mystery of the economy, we were lashed with fear.

3. But we, who know the economy, adore His mercy, because He has come to save and not to judge the world. Wherefore John, the forerunner of the Lord, who before knew not this mystery, on learning that He is Lord in truth, cried out, and spoke to those who came to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, why do you look so earnestly at me? I am not the Christ; I am the servant, and not the lord; I am the subject, and not the king; I am the sheep, and not the shepherd; I am a man, and not God. By my birth I loosed the barrenness of my mother; I did not make virginity barren. I was brought up from beneath; I did not come down from above. I bound the tongue of my father; I did not unfold divine grace. I was known by my mother, and I was not announced by a star. I am worthless, and the least; but after me there comes One who is before me — after me, indeed, in time, but before me by reason of the inaccessible and unutterable light of divinity. There comes One mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. I am subject to authority, but He has authority in Himself. I am bound by sins, but He is the Remover of sins. apply the law, but He brings grace to light. teach as a slave, but He judges as the Master. I have the earth as my couch, but He possesses heaven. I baptize with the baptism of repentance, but He confers the gift of adoption: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. Why do you give attention to me? I am not the Christ.

4. As John says these things to the multitude, and as the people watch in eager expectation of seeing some strange spectacle with their bodily eyes, and the devil is struck with amazement at such a testimony from John, lo, the Lord appears, plain, solitary, uncovered, without escort, having on Him the body of man like a garment, and hiding the dignity of the Divinity, that He may elude the snares of the dragon. And not only did He approach John as Lord without royal retinue; but even like a mere man, and one involved in sin, He bent His head to be baptized by John. Wherefore John, on seeing so great a humbling of Himself, was struck with astonishment at the affair, and began to prevent Him, saying, as you have just heard, I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me? What are you doing, O Lord? You teach things not according to rule. I have preached one thing (regarding You), and You perform another; the devil has heard one thing, and perceives another. Baptize me with the fire of Divinity; why do you wait for water? Enlighten me with the Spirit; why do You attend upon a creature? Baptize me, the Baptist, that Your pre-eminence may be known. I, O Lord, baptize with the baptism of repentance, and I cannot baptize those who come to me unless they first confess fully their sins. Be it so then that I baptize You, what have You to confess? You are the Remover of sins, and will You be baptized with the baptism of repentance? Though I should venture to baptize You, the Jordan dares not to come near You. I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?

5. And what says the Lord to him? Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness. Suffer it to be so now, John; you are not wiser than I. You see as man; I foreknow as God. It becomes me to do this first, and thus to teach. I engage in nothing unbecoming, for I am invested with honour. Do you marvel, O John, that I am not come in my dignity? The purple robe of kings suits not one in private station, but military splendour suits a king: am I come to a prince, and not to a friend? Suffer it to be so now for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness: I am the Fulfiller of the law; I seek to leave nothing wanting to its whole fulfilment, that so after me Paul may exclaim, Christ is the fulfilling of the law for righteousness to every one that believes. Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness. Baptize me, John, in order that no one may despise baptism. I am baptized by you, the servant, that no one among kings or dignitaries may scorn to be baptized by the hand of a poor priest. Allow me to go down into the Jordan, in order that they may hear my Father's testimony, and recognise the power of the Son. Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness. Then at length John suffers Him. And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and the heavens were opened unto Him; and, lo, the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and rested upon Him. And a voice (came) from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

6. Do you see, beloved, how many and how great blessings we would have lost, if the Lord had yielded to the exhortation of John, and declined baptism? For the heavens were shut before this; the region above was inaccessible. We would in that case descend to the lower parts, but we would not ascend to the upper. But was it only that the Lord was baptized? He also renewed the old man, and committed to him again the sceptre of adoption. For straightway the heavens were opened to Him. A reconciliation took place of the visible with the invisible; the celestial orders were filled with joy; the diseases of earth were healed; secret things were made known; those at enmity were restored to amity. For you have heard the word of the evangelist, saying, The heavens were opened to Him, on account of three wonders. For when Christ the Bridegroom was baptized, it was meet that the bridal-chamber of heaven should open its brilliant gates. And in like manner also, when the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the Father's voice spread everywhere, it was meet that the gates of heaven should be lifted up. And, lo, the heavens were opened to Him; and a voice was heard, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

7. The beloved generates love, and the light immaterial the light inaccessible. This is my beloved Son, He who, being manifested on earth and yet unseparated from the Father's bosom, was manifested, and yet did not appear. For the appearing is a different thing, since in appearance the baptizer here is superior to the baptized. For this reason did the Father send down the Holy Spirit from heaven upon Him who was baptized. For as in the ark of Noah the love of God toward man is signified by the dove, so also now the Spirit, descending in the form of a dove, bearing as it were the fruit of the olive, rested on Him to whom the witness was borne. For what reason? That the faithfulness of the Father's voice might be made known, and that the prophetic utterance of a long time past might be ratified. And what utterance is this? The voice of the Lord (is) on the waters, the God of glory thundered; the Lord (is) upon many waters. And what voice? This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. This is He who is named the son of Joseph, and (who is) according to the divine essence my Only-begotten. This is my beloved Son— He who is hungry, and yet maintains myriads; who is weary, and yet gives rest to the weary; who has not where to lay His head, and yet bears up all things in His hand; who suffers, and yet heals sufferings; who is smitten, and yet confers liberty on the world; who is pierced in the side, and yet repairs the side of Adam.

8. But give me now your best attention, I pray you, for I wish to go back to the fountain of life, and to view the fountain that gushes with healing. The Father of immortality sent the immortal Son and Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him with water and the Spirit; and He, begetting us again to incorruption of soul and body, breathed into us the breath (spirit) of life, and endued us with an incorruptible panoply. If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he is made God by water and the Holy Spirit after the regeneration of the layer he is found to be also joint-heir with Christ after the resurrection from the dead. Wherefore I preach to this effect: Come, all you kindreds of the nations, to the immortality of the baptism. I bring good tidings of life to you who tarry in the darkness of ignorance. Come into liberty from slavery, into a kingdom from tyranny, into incorruption from corruption. And how, says one, shall we come? How? By water and the Holy Ghost. This is the water in conjunction with the Spirit, by which paradise is watered, by which the earth is enriched, by which plants grow, by which animals multiply, and (to sum up the whole in a single word) by which man is begotten again and endued with life, in which also Christ was baptized, and in which the Spirit descended in the form of a dove.

9. This is the Spirit that at the beginning moved upon the waters; by whom the world moves; by whom creation consists, and all things have life; who also wrought mightily in the prophets, and descended in flight upon Christ. This is the Spirit that was given to the apostles in the form of fiery tongues. This is the Spirit that David sought when he said, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Of this Spirit Gabriel also spoke to the Virgin, The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you. By this Spirit Peter spoke that blessed word, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. By this Spirit the rock of the Church was established. This is the Spirit, the Comforter, that is sent because of you, that He may show you to be the Son of God.

10. Come then, be begotten again, O man, into the adoption of God. And how? Says one. If you practise adultery no more, and commit not murder, and serve not idols; if you are not overmastered by pleasure; if you do not suffer the feeling of pride to rule you; if you clean off the filthiness of impurity, and put off the burden of sin; if you cast off the armour of the devil, and put on the breastplate of faith, even as Isaiah says, Wash, and seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow. And come and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, I shall make them white as snow; and though they be like crimson, I shall make them white as wool. And if you be willing, and hear my voice, you shall eat the good of the land. Do you see, beloved, how the prophet spoke beforetime of the purifying power of baptism? For he who comes down in faith to the layer of regeneration, and renounces the devil, and joins himself to Christ; who denies the enemy, and makes the confession that Christ is God; who puts off the bondage, and puts on the adoption,— he comes up from the baptism brilliant as the sun, flashing forth the beams of righteousness, and, which is indeed the chief thing, he returns a son of God and joint-heir with Christ. To Him be the glory and the power, together with His most holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and ever, and to all the ages of the ages. Amen.

About this page

Source. Translated by J.H. MacMahon. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0523.htm>.

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