by Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas, Ph.D.
Theophany (or Epiphany) and Christmas
Theophany is one of the great Feasts of the Lord of the ecclesiastical year. It is also called Epiphany and the Day of Lights and is celebrated on the 6th of January. The names of this Feast indicate the understanding of the ancient Church concerning this Feast. This understanding is connected with the revelation of God, that is, the manifestation of the One God in Trinity through the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, Theophany comprises the birth of Christ and the related events (e.g. the visitation of the Magi) and also the beginning of the public manifestation of the incarnate economy of the Son of God which is connected with the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptizer. In the 4th century AD, Christmas was separated from Theophany and constituted a separate Feast, which was celebrated on the 25th of December. This separation had been adopted in the Western Church, which was at that time united the Eastern Churches. Since then Theophany was specifically connected with the Baptism of Christ, i.e. with the commencement of the public ministry of Christ through which he became the Savior and Redeemer of the world. The question that arises here is why was Christ baptized? Why did this take place and what is its deeper meaning?
The Baptism of Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism
a) The witness of John the Evangelist
In the Gospel of St. John we find the first hints regarding the relation between the Baptism of Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism. St. John the Forerunner speaks about the Baptism in water which he administered according to the divine calling and explains that the coming Christ would transform it into baptism in the Spirit so that through it human beings would enter into the kingdom of God: “John bore witness and said that he saw the Spirit descending like a Dove from heaven and resting upon Christ. He also said the he did not know him [i.e. Christ—until that point], but He who sent him to baptize had said that on whom he would see the Spirit descending and resting upon him, he would be the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. John also said, that he saw this and bore witness to it, namely, that he is [the Christ] the Son of God” (John 1:32-34). Exactly the same was confirmed by the Lord himself when he said to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). These words of the Lord constitute the institution of the holy sacrament of Baptism, through which human beings become Christians. The descent of the Holy Spirit, then, at the Baptism of Christ, revealed the sacrament of Christ which Christ instituted and operates through the Holy Spirit. It is the Baptism which the Lord delivered to his holy disciples as a basic element of their ministry in the world.
b) The Witness of the Evangelists Matthew and Mark
In the two synoptic Evangelists, Matthew and Mark, there is an explicit statement about the necessity of the sacrament of Baptism as a means of participation of the human beings in the salvation which Christ offers. This appears in the command of the Risen Lord to his Disciples to preach the Gospel and baptize human beings throughout the world. In other words, he asked them to initiate human beings into their new and saving relation with the one God in Trinity which was definitively revealed at his Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “God, then, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all those things which I commanded to you” (Matt 28:18-20). Mark the Evangelist states the same in a briefer way. “Go to the whole world and preach the Gospel to the entire creation. Whoever believes you and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16).
It is clear, then, that the sacrament of Baptism which Christ instituted by fulfilling and transforming the Baptism of John the Baptizer is the commencement of our re-connection with our creator, who is the leader and perfecter of our salvation. To understand the deeper meaning of this salvation we must pay attention to the details that the Gospel narratives supply concerning the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan.
The Deeper Meaning of the Baptism of Christ
and the Sacrament of Baptism
a) Man’s return to the true God
The Baptism of the Forerunner was a “baptism of repentance,” which signaled man’s return to God by obedience to the divine will. It was necessary in view of the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God which He would bring into the world. It was a kind of prelude and preparation which looked towards God’s intervention through the Messiah, that is, the justification of human beings and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is most clearly manifested in the words of Christ to John the Baptist, “This is necessary, so that all righteousness might be fulfilled” (Matt 3:15). So, when Christ came forth to receive the baptism of John as a man, he accepted the divine will on behalf of the entire humanity. And then, the witness of the heavenly Father which recognized him as His beloved Son and the descent of the Holy Spirit in a bodily manner “in the form of a Dove” signaled the acceptance of Christ by the Father as the Messiah who would bring the kingdom of God into humanity. This kingdom was mainly and primarily represented by the communion of the Holy Spirit, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold: “Jacob is my son and I will take him up. Israel is my elect, whom my soul has accepted, and to whom I gave my Spirit so that he might judge among the nations”(Isa 42:1).
b) The humanity of Christ as the basis of man’s salvation
Both the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah as well as the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him refer to his humanity, which he assumed for our sake, and made it the basis of our justification and salvation. As the ecclesiastical hymnology declares:
Having put on the form of the servant, O Christ, you came forth to be baptized by a servant in the waters of Jordan, so that you may redeem from the ancient slavery and sanctify and enlighten all of us human beings. (Vespers of the eve of Theophany)
It is redemption that Christ is coming forth to bring to all believers through his baptism. Because through this, he purifies Adam, he raises the fallen, he puts to shame the tyrant who caused the fall, he opens the heavens, he brings down the Holy Spirit, and he grants incorruption and participation. (8th Praise)
Today the Lord comes to the waters of Jordan, and says to John: Be not shy for baptizing me, because I came to save Adam the protoplast. (Oikos)
As man you came to the river, O Christ, King, and you hasten to receive baptism from the hands of the Forerunner, for our sins, O Lover of mankind! (Sophronios of Jerusalem)
c) The revelation of the one God in Trinity and his communion with man.
In the last analysis, however, what happened in the Jordan refers to the divinity of Christ, and especially to his eternal filial identity, which reveals the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Christ is the eternal Son of the Father who also became man in order to bring man back to the kingdom of the Holy Trinity. It is for this reason that the Sacrament of Baptism which grants to us regeneration and brings us into the life of Christ is celebrated in the name of the Holy Trinity, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The feast of Theophany, then, refers not only to man’s return to the true God, the creator and Savior through Christ, but also to the revelation of the mystery of God, i.e. to the truth that God is one in Trinity and as such he must be worshiped. As the ecclesiastical hymnology states it:
When you were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, it was then, that the worship of the Holy Trinity was manifested. Because it was then that the voice of the Begetter bore witness by calling you His Beloved Son. And then also, that the Spirit in the form of a Dove confirmed the assurance of the word. We glorify You in Your Epiphany, O Christ, as the God who enlightens the world. (Apolytikion)
You manifested yourself to the world today, and your light, O Lord, was marked upon us who praise you with full understanding. (Kontakion)
The enlightenment about the One God in Trinity is also the reason for the feast of Theophany being called the feast of “The Lights.” The Lights in this case are the three blessed persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are one divine Light unapproachable!
The Great Sanctification of the Waters
The Great Sanctification of the Waters, which is observed on the even and on the day of Theophany is a calling to remembrance of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptist and the sanctification of the waters which was done by Christ at that time. Saint John Chrysostom speaks about this Great Sanctification of the feast of Theophany and says that the sanctified water was kept by the faithful and used for purifications, support, healing, etc. We realize its importance when we recall the words of the prayer which the priest offers at the epiclesis (invocation) of the Holy Spirit and the sanctification of the water: “… and make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a release of sins, a cure of maladies, an extermination of demons, unreachable to the opposing powers, a plenitude of angelic potency …” What is particularly important in this case is the repentance and the fasting which is observed on the eve of the Feast. When we receive the sanctified water of the Great Sanctification with contrite spirit and true fait, then it truly becomes a healing means of soul and body and undoing of all opposing powers.
The feast of the Theophany is an invitation to renewal and return to the Lord of glory, who humbled himself, though he was God, and became man—a true man, sinless, forgiving and merciful, the way, the truth and the life. Let us follow him on the path of righteousness, along with his all-holy Mother the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, the holy Apostles and all the Saints.
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Fr George Dragas is Professor of Patristics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts