The Feast of Theophany is a celebration of an historic event, the Baptism of Christ, celebrated each year on January 6. The Feast commemorates the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity. At the Baptism of Christ, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were made manifest. Thus, the name of the Feast is Epiphany, meaning manifestation, or Theophany, meaning manifestation of God.
The Biblical story of the Baptism of Christ is recorded in all four of the Gospels: Matthew 3, Mark 1:1-9, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:31-34. In accordance with the Gospel this is the first revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Holy Spirit give testimony to the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh among mankind.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. Initially, John would not do this, saying that Jesus should baptize him. Jesus said to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness (3:15). John consented and baptized Jesus.
When Jesus came up from the water, the heavens opened suddenly, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. The Bible records that the Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus. When this happened, a voice came from heaven and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This was the voice of God the Father.
Festival of Lights:
The theme of “manifestation” or “revelation” is also expressed in Scripture with the symbolism of light. In the hymn of the Feast we sing, “Christ has appeared and enlightened the world.” Thus, January 6 is also known as the Feast of Lights. The Church celebrates on this day the illumination of the world by the light of Christ.
By descending into the waters, Christ has enlightened all creation, and has crushed the heads of the serpents. And now all are glorified 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 loves mankind.”1
Prefiguration of Christ’s Death:
As Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death. Thus the waters of the Jordan become symbolic of Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death.2
Blessing of Water:
By blessing the water we acknowledge that 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 Savior extends to all things….”3
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). The verb baptize “AMAD” (in Syriac) means sink, dip, wash, baptize, dye, seclude and hide. This symbolizes the burial of the dead in the tombs as the baptized are buried with Christ to rise up with him in the new life.
Road to Calvary:
The day of the Epiphany is the day when the whole world is being renewed and becomes a partaker of the holiness of God. But at the same time, it is the day when Christ enters on the way to Calvary. He came to John the Baptist on Jordan, not in order to be cleansed, because he was pure of sin. Christ did not need cleansing. But by entering the waters of Jordan, Lord Jesus Christ merges Himself on that day, taking upon Himself the mortality resulting from the sin of man. He vests Himself with the mortality of the sinful world. This is the beginning of the way to Calvary. This is a day when we marvel at the infinite love of God.
Let us therefore today wonder and marvel, and worship this love of God. kul-khun ’ammé, taw nebruk w’nesghud leh (All you people, let us bow and worship him). Amen!
1. Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, trans. The Festal Menaion, (Faber and Faber, London, 1969).
2. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, (SVS Press, New York).
Also refer to Hugh Wybrew, Orthodox Feasts of Jesus Christ & the Virgin Mary:
Liturgical Texts with Commentary, (SVS Press, new York, 2000).
3. Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition,
(Gorgias Press: Piscataway, New Jersey, 2004).