Celebrating Theophany, as well as Epiphany

world | Jan 7, 2012 | By Martin Barillas

Theophany (from Greek Θεοφνεια, Τheophaneia ), meaning "appearance of God") is one of the Great Feasts of the Eastern Church, celebrated on January 6. It is the feast which reveals the Most Holy Trinity to the world through the Baptism of the Lord (Mt.3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). St John the Baptist, also known as the Forerunner or Precursor of Jesus and the last of the Prophets, had been baptizing believers in advance of Christ's ministry. When Jesus, his cousin, appeared on the bank of the Jordan asking for baptism, John replied that he was not worthy even to 'untie your sandal.' Jesus responded that this was necessary. Following His baptism, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Him while the voice of God the Father resounded from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased' thereby giving an inkling of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. 

This observance commemorates Christ's baptism by John the Forerunner in the River Jordan, and the beginning of Christ's earthly ministry. The Feast of Theophany is the culmination of the Christmas Season, which starts on December 25 and ends on January 6. In a mystic commemoration of this event, the Great Blessing of Holy Water is performed on this day (not like the Western Church where it is blessed at the Easter sunrise services). It is also a tradition for the priest to use this freshly blessed holy water to bless the homes of the faithful.

The Western Christian feast of the Epiphany falls on that same day and commemorates the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. The icon of the Nativity includes the three Magi. The Russian Orthodox Church uses the old Julian calendar and Jan.6 in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to Dec.25 in the Julian calendar.  So it is just an accident that Russian Christmas happens occur on the Western Epiphany. Catholics of the Byzantine rite, for example, uses the modern Gregorian calendar and therefore celebrate Christmas on the same day as most other Christians while on January 6 they mark the Feast of the Theophany.

On the feast, water is blessed in an elaborate and beautiful ritual. Christians then drink the holy water and take some home for those who could not attend, and for later use. It is typical of Eastern Christian that, not only do they sprinkle holy water, they also drink it for spiritual and physical healing. 

Originally, there was just one Christian feast of the shining forth of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ's birth, the adoration of the wise men, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Pascha and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival,  the Feast of Lights or Hanukah. The Armenian Apostolic Church still keeps January 6 as a feast of both Christ's Nativity and baptism.

Celebration of the feast

The services of Theophany (Jan.6) are arranged similarly to those of the Nativity (Dec.35). Historically the Christmas services were established later.

The Liturgy of the feast begins with psalms of glorification and praise instead of the three normal Antiphons. And the baptismal line from Galatians 3:27 replaces the Thrice Holy Hymn:  

                 All those who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed in Christ: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. 

The Gospel readings of all the liturgies  tell of the Lord's baptism by John in the Jordan River. The epistle reading of the Divine Liturgy tells of the consequences of the Lord's appearing which is the divine epiphany.

Since the main feature of the feast is the blessing of water. It is prescribed to follow both the Divine Liturgy of the eve of the feast and the Divine Liturgy of the day itself. The blessing verifies that mankind, and all of creation, were created to be filled with the sanctifying presence of God.

 

 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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