Theophany Explained: The Icon, the Hymns and the Celebrations

Theophany Season
Theophany, sometimes called Epiphany, is upon us (Богоявление in Russian, Θεοφάνεια in Greek).  The sixth of January is the official date that the baptism of Christ is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It is not to be confused with the Western holiday also called Epiphany which is a celebration of the magi presenting the baby Christ with their gifts.
The word Theophany means “Revelation of God;” Theophany therefore marks the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God when Jesus was baptized.  Those who witnessed heard the Father’s voice from Heaven, saw the Spirit descending upon Jesus, and could see Jesus in the flesh, whom God confirmed to be His Son with His voice.
Theophany Icon
The symbolism of this icon is deep and rich. There is one particular part I want to focus on for this blog entry.
Christ is purposely depicted with little or no clothing. But why is that significant?
All throughout the creation narrative in Genesis we see God creating and then saying it is “good.”  Man and woman were created together in God’s image.  They were both beautiful, and while they lacked physical garments, they were clothed in the glory of the “image” and “likeness” of God.  However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them garments of skin to wear (which symbolizes the sinful tendency that now obscures our true nature).  Their natural beauty was transformed into an object of shame.  Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.
Now, enter Jesus Christ: he represents the second Adam (1 Cor 15).  In shame and nakedness, Adam hid.  Yet Christ comes in his majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him (and in the subsequent centuries, Christians were often baptized without any clothing, shedding the garments of the “old man” to die in Christ and be resurrected in Him). But why was Christ baptized if He had no sin?
While Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, it was really the Jordan and all of creation that was baptized in Christ.  As Canticle Four of Compline of Theophany states, At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heaven enlightened, and mankind was set loose from the bitter tyranny of the enemy.
We see the beginning of a new creation in Theophany. Things are being set right. Christ has come not only to cleanse and restore mankind, but to adopt us as heirs into his Kingdom.  And when we receive His glory, not only are we redeemed, but we draw all of creation with us into the final restoration.  That is why “creation groans” in eager expectation, awaiting the glorification of the children of God. (Rom 8)
A few other notes about the Icon:
– “At the top the Holy Spirit is descending upon Jesus as a dove, the Holy Spirit is depicted in a Mandorla. In this manner, The Father, using His own pre-eternal and consubstantial and subracelestial Spirit as His finger, crying out and point from heaven, openly declared and proclaimed to all that the one then being baptized by John in the Jordan was His beloved Son, while at the same time manifesting His unity with Him.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 60.15). St. John Chrysostom also emphasizes that the Gospels state the Heavens were opened, the Spirit descends upon us so that we can ascend with Christ and the Spirit to the Father in Heaven.  For the first time since the fall of mankind, the Heavens were opened to us.
– The angels on the right side are waiting to attend and dress him after the baptism is over.
– John the Baptist, while baptizing Jesus is usually turned away or looking at the Spirit descending upon Christ. This signifies that Theophany is about elevating Jesus Christ.  If this were an Olympic race, it would be as if the Old Testament (John the Baptist and all before him) were passing the baton to the New Testament (Jesus Christ and all of the saints).
– There is an axe near John the Baptist, which reflects his warning that our lives must bear the fruit of the Spirit or else we will be removed.  We cannot get comfortable or spiritually lazy.
– Jesus is not submerged in the water, for creation was baptized in Him, not vice versa.
– Lastly, the strange little creatures riding fish at the bottom represent the Jordan River and the Sea, both fleeing at the sight of something much bigger and greater than themselves entering the water.  As the Psalms say:
  • Psalm 73:14 – Thou did establish the sea by Thy might, Thou did break the heads of the dragons in the water.
  • Psalm 76:15 – The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid; the abysses were troubled.
  • Psalm 113:3 – The sea beheld and fled, [the River] Jordan turned back.
Theophany Music
There are several hymns sung during this season, but the forefeast Troparion hymn confirms some of the things I write about here: O Adam, be glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as you did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He has appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ has appeared, for He truly wills to renew all creation.  If you can get a copy of The Festal Menaion produced by Mother Mary and Met. Kallistos Ware (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press), then you will find nearly 100 pages of deep theology regarding this feast day.
Theophany Celebrations
During this time of the year, a beautiful ceremony is carried out and holy water is prepared in each parish. Congregants are free to take the holy water home with them. A portion is kept and used by the church throughout the year.
Also, house blessings are completed during the subsequent weeks using the holy water prepared during the Feast of Theophany.  It is not unusual to give a small gift to the priest who has blessed the home (many priests do not receive a salary and these types of events help carry them financially through the year) and/or you may cook a meal for him. Don’t take offense though if he has several house blessings lined up for that day and does not have time to sit down for a full meal.
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