By Tenny Thomas
During the Theophany Liturgy The Orthodox Syrians sing in Syriac:
“Nuhro bashmay yurdnon donaḥ
wmolé ’olmo ḥadutho
wkenshé tohrin wnahro rotaḥ
“Bro dqoyem beth shef’é d’mayo
wmen iday ’abdeh ’omed
w’ruḥqudsho noḥto men shmayo
w’abo dhonaw ber sohed .
“Ba’modokh mor ḥalel mad’ayn
dnehwun nawsé lrabuthokh
wabdenḥokh anhar kul zaw’ayn
dnawdé lokh ’al taybu-thokh”.
The skies above the river smiled,
filling the world with joy.
The crowds are amazed;
the river agitated by
the manifestation of the (Holy) Trinity.
The Son is standing in the moving waters,
being baptized by His servant;
The Holy Spirit descending from heaven;
and the Father testifying: “This is My Son”.
By Your baptism, O Lord, purify our minds
to be a place for Your majesty.
And by Your manifestation, enlighten our senses
that we may thank You for Your goodness.
Ephrem the Syrian wrote a hymn on “The Day of Theophany” saying:
The heavens He has renewed,
for that fools worshiped all the luminaries:
He has renewed the earth, for that in Adam it was wasted.
That which He fashioned has become new by His spittle:
and the All-Sufficing has restored bodies with souls.
Gather yourselves again sheep and without labor receive cleansing!
For one needs not an Elisha to bathe seven times in the river,
nor again to be wearied as the priests are wearied with sprinklings.
Seven times Elisha purified himself in a mystery of the seven spirits;
and the hyssop and blood are a mighty symbol.
There is no room for division;
He is not divided from the Lord of all,
Who is Son of the Lord of all.
Moses sweetened in Marah the waters that were bitter
because the People complained and murmured:
Thus he gave a sign of baptism
wherein the Lord of life makes sweet them that were bitter.
The cloud overshadowed and kept off the burning heat
from the camp it showed a symbol of the Holy Spirit,
which overshadows you in baptism tempering the flaming fire
that it harm not your bodies.
Through the sea the People then passed,
and showed a symbol of the baptism wherein you were washed.
The People passed through that and believed not:
the Gentiles were baptized in this and believed
and received the Holy Ghost.
The Word sent the Voice to proclaim before His Coming,
to prepare for Him the way by which He came
and to betroth the Bride till He should come
that she might be ready
when He should come and take her from the water.
The voice of prophecy stirred the son of the barren woman
and he went forth wandering in the desert and crying,
”Lo! The Son of the Kingdom comes!
Prepare the way that He may enter
and abide in your dwellings!”
John cried, “Who comes after me, He is before me:
I am the Voice but not the Word;
I am the torch but not the Light,
the Star that rises before the Sun of Righteousness.”
In the wilderness this John had cried and had said,
”Repent you sinners of your evils—
and offer the fruits of repentance;
for lo! He comes that winnows the wheat from the tares.”
The Light giver has prevailed and marked a mystery,
by the degrees he ascended:
Lo! There are twelve days since he ascended,
and today this is the thirteenth:
a perfect mystery of Him, the Son, and His twelve!
Darkness was overcome to make it manifest
that Satan was overcome
and the Light prevailed that he should proclaim
that the Firstborn triumphs:
darkness was overcome with the Dark Spirit,
and our Light prevailed with the Light giver.
In the Height and the Depth the Son had two heralds.
The star of light proclaimed Him from above;
John likewise preached Him from beneath:
two heralds, the earthly and the heavenly.
The star of light, contrary to nature, shone forth
of a sudden less than the sun yet greater than the sun.
Less was it than he in manifest light
and greater than he in secret might because of its mystery.
The star of light shed its rays among them that were in darkness
and guided them as though they were blind
so that they came and met the great Light:
they gave offerings and received life and adored and departed.
The herald from above showed His Nature to be from the Most High; likewise he that was from beneath showed His Body
to be from humankind; mighty marvel!
that His Godhead and His Manhood by them were proclaimed!
Thus whoso reckons Him as of earth,
the star of light will convince him that He is of Heaven:
and whoso reckons Him as of spirit,
this John will convince him that He is also bodily.
John drew near with his parents and worshipped the Sun
and brightness rested on His Face.
He was not moved as when in the womb.
That here he worships and there he leaped!
The whole creation became for Him as one mouth
and cried out concerning Him.
The Magi cry out in their gifts;
the barren cry out with their children the star of light, lo!
It cries out in the air, “Behold the Son of the King!”
The heavens are opened,
the waters break forth,
the dove is in glory!
The voice of the Father is stronger than thunder
as it utters the word, “This is My Beloved”;
the Watchers brought the tidings,
the children acclaimed Him in their Hosannas.1
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.”2
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.3
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….”4
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).
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.5
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!