Theophany: The Feast of the Manifestation of God
The feast of Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, commemorates the baptism of Christ. In the early Church, Epiphany was a day of baptism and those catechumens who were prepared to enter the Church were baptized on the eve of this feast; for this reason, it is also known as “the day of the lights.”
As a liturgical feast, Epiphany was known already in the third century in the Eastern Church. The West received it from the East in the fourth century, at the same time as the East received the feast of the Nativity (Christmas) from the West. Before this time, Christ’s Nativity had been celebrated in the East only as part of the Epiphany, but the celebration still centered on His baptism, not His birth. This may have been due to the greater importance attached by the early Christians to the spiritual birth-baptism-than to physical birth.
The feast of Epiphany, it appears, was first celebrated by Gnostics, who believed that Christ, an ordinary man, became the Son of God at the moment of His baptism. But the true Christians underlined quite a different meaning of this event. The Church taught that Jesus was always the incarnate Son of God; but the Sonship was manifested at His baptism. Hence we have the name Epiphany or Theophany.
In the homilies of the best known Greek Fathers of the Church delivered on Epiphany, the themes most stressed are the purification of water and, through it, of all material creation. Christ’s baptism has a cosmic significance. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon Jesus implies the coming of the Spirit upon all of us. For the Son of God assumed our body, St. Athanasius stresses, and in His baptism we too have been baptized. He was baptized to sanctify and purify water for the healing of all. Heaven, which the first Adam through the Fall closed for himself and his posterity, is now opened with Jesus’ coming out of the water. These themes are expressed in the Church’s celebration on this day.
The Theme of Light
The liturgy of Epiphany not only celebrates the event of Christ’s baptism but communicates the fruits and meaning of the event for those who are members of His Body. Christ, whom the streams of the Jordan received, is “our Enlightener, the One who enlightens every man.” He is “the Redeemer of Israel, who frees us from corruption.” “By descending into the waters, He has enlightened all creation,” and “has crushed the heads of the serpents.” And now all may glory in Him who is the “Savior, the Enlightener of our souls.” “Light” is a prominent image in the service of Epiphany, and many of the hymns refer to it: “Thou, who hast created the world, art made manifest in the world, to give light to those that sit in darkness. Glory to Thee, who lovest mankind” (Troparion of the prophecy). “Today Thou hast appeared to the universe and Thy light, O Lord, hast shone on us, who with understanding praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself, O Light Unapproachable!” (Kontakion of the Feast).
The Blessing of Water
The blessing of the waters, first in the church, in a large vessel, and the second time outside the church at the bank of a river or stream, or at the shore of a lake or ocean, is the most characteristic feature of the celebration. Whether or not bodies of water outside the church are blessed, the water is consecrated twice, first on the eve and then on the feast itself. Both blessings are performed at the end of the liturgy.
The stikhera or verses of the blessing announce: “Today, the nature of the waters is sanctified”; the prokeimenon proclaims: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 26:1). After the gospel (Mark 1:9-11 ), follow these petitions among others: that “this water … may be sanctified by the might and operation and descent of the Holy Spirit,” that “we may be enlightened by the light of knowledge and godliness through the descent of the Holy Spirit,”
that this water “may bestow cleansing of soul and body upon all who draw it with faith and partake of it.”
The priest prays that Christ, who is the source of life, Light of Light, who accepted to be baptized in the Jordan by the hand of a servant, who has sanctified the nature of the waters, may “lead us to a new birth through water and the Spirit, and restore us again to our original freedom …. We entreat thee, O Master who lovest mankind: sprinkle upon us, thine unworthy servants, …cleansing water, the gift of Thy compassion.”
In another prayer, the consequences of the event are enumerated:
“Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord.”
“Today Paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us.”
Today we have been delivered from darkness and illuminated with the light of the knowledge of God.”
“Today the whole creation shines with light from on high.”
“Today earth and seas are the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness.”
And finally the priest, making the sign of the cross over the water three times, exclaims: “Therefore, O King who lovest mankind, do thou thyself be present now as then through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water … Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a protection against disease, a destruction to demons, inaccessible to the adverse powers and filled with angelic strength….” The sign of the cross is made over the water with the cross, and then the priest plunges it into the water and raises it three times, while the troparion of the feast is sung.
The Restoration of Creation
What is the meaning of the blessing of waters? Is it the transformation of something that is profane into something that is now sacred, “mere” water transformed into “holy” water? If it were so, then, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, “the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about matter or the world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as `holy water.’ ” The prayer at the blessing of water, both in the Baptismal service and at Epiphany, “may mean the revelation of the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of water, and thus of the world …. By being restored through the blessing to its proper function” the things of the world become again a means of communion with God (For the Life of the World, p. 131f.). Christ in His baptism purified the nature of the waters. He came to redeem not only human beings but, through them, the entire material created world. The waters become the means of healing and grace. But not only waters-any other material thing may be a bearer of the Spirit. No matter can be excluded or considered trivial, ”for the redemptive and transforming grace of the Saviour extends to all things….” (The Festal Menaion, p. 59).
The feast of Epiphany thus speaks of the restoration of the pure human image, as well as of all material nature. The true nature of water has its destiny in the salvation of man and the world. Creation “will be set free from its bondage” and will obtain “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:20). All things are to be set aright. They are to be permeated by the light, love, grace, and glory of God. In the feast, the Church reminds its members of the historical character of the Incarnation and the goal of Christian existence: to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
– Veselin Kesich