Theophany (Jan. 6)
in the Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
In the Eastern Tradition this feast celebrates our Lord's baptism in the Jordan, not the adoration of the Magi...Theophany is marked...by a distinctive ceremony, not held at Christmas: the Great Blessing of Waters...The culminating moment in this ceremony of blessing occurs when the officiating priest plunges or throws the Cross three times into the water, thus recalling the triple immersion of Christ in the Jordan, as well as the triple immersion which every Orthodox Christian undergoes at his own baptismal initiation. Lest the phrase "Great Blessing of the Waters" be misunderstood, it should immediately be emphasized that the blessing is effected, not by the officiating priest and the people who are praying with him, but by Christ Himself, who is the true celebrant in this as in all the mysteries of the Church. It is Christ who has blessed the waters once for all at His baptism in the Jordan: the liturgical ceremony of blessing is simply an extension of Christ's original act. This is a point of primary importance.
The basic meaning of the feast as a whole is summed up in its title Epiphany, "manifestation," or more specifically Theophany, "manifestation of God." Christ's baptism in the Jordan is a "manifestation of God" to the world, in the first place because it forms the beginning of our Lord's public ministry; but secondly, and in a deeper sense, because at this baptism there was granted to the world a revelation of the Holy Trinity. All three Persons were made "manifest" together: the Father testified from on high to the divine Sonship of Jesus; the Son received His Father's testimony; and the Spirit was seen in the form of a dove, descending from the Father and resting upon the Son. This threefold disclosure is the subject of the Troparion (the main theme song) of the feast:
"When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself, and enlightened the world, glory to Thee."
This theme of "manifestation" or "revelation" is expressed in particular under the symbolism of light: in the words of the Troparion just quoted, Christ has "appeared and enlightened the world." Thus, besides the title Theophany, January 6 is known also as the Feast of Lights. The Church celebrates on this day the illumination of the world by the light of Christ...
Manifestation, illumination -- with these two ideas there goes a third: renewal, regeneration, re-creation. Christ's baptism in the Jordan renews our nature, for it is the prelude to our baptism in the font; and it renews and regenerates, not our human nature only, but the whole material creation.
To understand this idea of renewal, it is helpful to begin by asking a question which is, in fact, posed repeatedly in the texts for the feast. Why was Christ baptized? We are baptized because we are sinful: we go down dirty into the water, and we emerge cleansed. But what need had Christ, who is sinless, to undergo baptism in the Jordan? To this the liturgical texts answer:
"Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan" (Matins of the feast); "As man He is cleansed that I may be made clean" (Compline for the Feast).
"For the sake of sinful man;" in reality it is not He who is cleansed in the Jordan but we ourselves. In taking manhood upon Him at His Incarnation, our Lord assumed a representative role: He became the New Adam, summing up the whole human race in Himself, just as the first Adam summed up and contained all mankind in himself at the Fall. On the Cross, although sinless, Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all humanity; and in the same way at His baptism, although sinless, He was cleansed for all man's sins. When He went down into the Jordan, as the New Adam He carried us sinful men down with Him: and there in the waters He cleansed us, bearing each of us up once more out of the river as a new creature, regenerate and reconciled.
In Christ's baptism at the hands of John, our own baptismal regeneration is already accomplished by anticipation. The many celebrations of the Eucharist are all a participation in the single and unique Last Supper; and in a similar way all our individual baptisms are a sharing in the baptism of Christ -- they are the means whereby the "grace of Jordan" is extended, so that it may be appropriated by each one of us personally. As an indication of the close connection between Christ's baptism and our baptism, it may be noted that the prayer at the Great Blessing of the Waters on Theophany is almost identical with the prayer of blessing said over the font at the sacrament of baptism.
But Christ's descent into the river has also a further significance. When Christ went down into the waters, not only did He carry us down with Him and make us clean, but He also made clean the nature of the waters themselves. As the Troparion of the Forefeast puts it: "Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters." The feast of Theophany has thus a cosmic aspect. The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God's creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a "lair of dragons." Christ came on earth to redeem not only man, but -- through man -- the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation our rebirth in the (baptismal) font, he likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace.
If water acts as a means of grace pre-eminently in the sacrament of baptism, it is also used as a means of sanctification on many other occasions as well. That is why Orthodox are encouraged to drink from the water that has been blessed at Epiphany and to sprinkle themselves with it; they take it also to their homes, and keep it there to use from time to time. In all this...they are convinced that in virtue of Christ's Incarnation, of his Baptism and Transfiguration, all material things can be made holy and "spirit-bearing." "At thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heaven enlightened" (Compline at Theophany). This, then, is part of the meaning of Theophany: in the eyes of one who is a Christian, nothing should ever appear trivial or (superficial), for the redemptive and transforming grace of the Savior extends to all things..." (Taken from the Festal Menaion Introduction: the Background and Meaning of Feasts).