The Transformative Grace of the Church: St. Porphyrios the Actor

I was afforded the rare winter opportunity on my drive to the Church, and for a few minutes while talking to the lamb crew who have been here since 4:00 this morning.  For those that were up early today, it was a very mild and clear night for this time of year…enough to where you could stand outside for more than a few seconds, and stare up at the clarity of the night sky. Venus and Jupiter were the brightest objects in the sky, with the light of the early morning dawn coming up right below them.  

Over the course of a few minutes, the planets and stars disappeared from view, and the sun crept over the horizon, shining it’s brilliant rays on the world.  I kept thinking to myself of that glorious opening to the Great Doxology at Matins:  “Glory to Thee Who has shown us the Light!”

 However magnificent this morning’s sunrise was, it pales in comparison to the beauty and light that comes upon the Human Race on the Feast day that was celebrate today, Holy Theophany! Today, Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan, and the heavens literally open, with a voice coming down from the sky, saying something that will change the world forever:  “This is my beloved Son, of Whom I am well pleased”.  

 This simple statement made from the Father, is a very blazing and public revelation of Truth and Power.  God is now dwelling with us, in the midst of His creation!  He isn’t just some omnipotent being in the heavens, Who plays with His creation like pawns on a chessboard!  He is here, dwelling among us, and continually revealing His power and His Love through the Worship, Mysteries, and Sacraments of His Holy Church! 

For those who are new to the Orthodox Faith, it is on this Feast Day of Holy Theophany, that we bless and sanctify water, remembering how Christ sanctified the waters of the Jordan. There is a very pious custom that is popular in many Orthodox Countries, where after the waters are blessed, men and women will dive into icy waters and plunge themselves into the depths of the various frozen lakes and rivers three times.  They do this to be reminded of their own baptisms, when the Holy Spirit came into ordinary water, and put to death mankind’s old ways of wickedness, and allowed them to awaken as adopted sons and daughters of God.  

 There are many in the outside world that would look upon this custom as odd, just like they do at so many of the other mysteries (sacraments) of the Church.  From an outside perspective, these mysteries of the Church seem like a bunch of hocus pocus, useless rituals that have no purpose, and no way of changing mankind and the world.  But it has been the teaching of Christianity from the very beginning, that it is through the sacraments that the human race is truly transformed.  

 There is a beautiful (and historical) story that explains this much better than I could, which took place in the first centuries of the Church, during the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate in the 4thcentury.  He was celebrating his birthday and had asked for comedians and actors to come in and entertain the guests at the grand banquet that was throw in his honor.

 One of the popular things to do at that time, was to poke fun and make fun of the Christians who were under persecution at that time by the state.  The pagan actors came up with an elaborate scene, in which they would mock the various beliefs of Christians, including their belief in the power of baptism.

 All of the actors came on stage, some dressed as priests, another dressed as a bishop, and a man, whose name was Porphyrios, played the role of the man who was going to be baptized. They brought out a large font of water and a white baptismal robe as props.  After the scene started, every one of the actors, included Porphyrios, tried to out-do the other with derisive posturing, ridiculing gestures, and an over dramatization of the prayers that were supposed to be said over the waters. 

 Towards the end of the performance, Porphyrios went into the font, and the actor dressed as the Bishop shouted: “The Servant of God Porphyrios is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” He then thrust Porphyrios down into the waters, and it was there that something unexplainable happened.  

 In the Synaxarion (Lives of the Saints), we read:   “As Porphyrios came up from the waters, he was donned in the white robe, and suddenly felt himself transfixed.  A complete serenity overcame him, and out of a bright light that only he could see before him, came a voice which said that he was truly being baptized in the name of the trinity.”

 After this incredible transformation, Porphyrios refused to continue with the rest of the act.  In an act of pure courage and defiance towards the Emperor, he started to denounce all that were present, for mocking the true God of the Christians!  He was so changed by the waters of Baptism, and he held on to this new reality so tightly, that not even the threat of death from the king could cause him to turn his back on our Lord!

 The last sentence in the story of his life, sums up everything very nicely:  “By the will of God, he was transformed from a clown of the king, to a servant of the Lord”.  

 Transformative Grace… this is what we are given through all of the sacred mysteries of the Church, and it is what we are reminded of on this great Feast of Theophany.  Why does the priest encourage the entire flock to attend the Church services, to take participate In the sacraments, to go to confession, to be present for blessings, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ as often as possible?  Because it is in these mysteries that God’s power is revealed to the human race!  The mysteries (sacraments) of the Church are the only things that exist in this world, that can truly change and transformus as sons and daughters of the creator of all. 

 As we begin this new year, celebrating and remember the manifestation of God’s power through His Holy Epiphany, let us once again make a commitment to allow ourselves to be transformed by His power through prayer, silence, and the sacred mysteries which He has entrusted to those who seek eternal life with Him.