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Russian Greek-Catholic Church

Epiphany or Theophany?

Adapted from Sacred Symbols That Speak
by Father Anthony Coniaris


On the Feast of the Epiphany, the Church calls us to go to the River Jordan to witness the manifestation of God and the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There we see, with the eyes of our souls, our Lord immersing himself once again in the waters of the River Jordan, and thus sanctifying the oceans, streams, rivers, and lakes of the world.

On the Feast of the Epiphany the priest performs the special Rite of the Blessing of the Waters.  He asks our Lord that just as 2,000 years ago he blessed the water in the River Jordan, so today he bless the water that we have before us so that in the words of the prayer "those who sprinkle and partake therefrom (of the Holy Water) may receive it for the cleansing of souls and bodies, for the healing of suffering, for the sanctification of homes, and for every need."

The sprinkling of the people with Holy Water which take place during the service has its roots in ancient practices of baptism where it was customary to sprinkle the faithful with the consecrated waters of the baptismal font before the catechumens were baptized.

In some parts of the country, an Orthodox bishop throws a cross into a body of water to be retrieved by a swimmer.  In the local parish, the priest immerses a cross into a vessel containing water.  He immerses it three times to recall the triple immersion of Christ in the Jordan, as well as the triple immersion of every Orthodox believer in the baptismal font.  This act represents our Lord immersing himself once again in the River Jordan and sanctifying the rivers and lakes of the world.  Thus, the consecrated water brings to us the healing presence of the Lord.

The meaning of Epiphany is expressed by the  word epiphany itself which means in Greek the SHOWING FORTH or MANIFESTATION of God.  The word theophany expresses it even better: it means the APPEARANCE OF GOD.  Christ's baptism in the Jordan River marks the manifestation of the Triune God to the world.  For it was at the baptism of Jesus that God revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity was made manifest: the Father testified from on high to the divine Sonship of Jesus:  "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," the Son received his Father's testimony, and the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove, descending from the Father and resting upon the Son.  Thus, God revealed himself fully on Epiphany (or Theophany!) as the Father who loves us, the Son who saves us, and the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  As the Troparion of the Feast says:

"When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan,
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest!
For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee,
calling Thee his beloved Son!
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
confirmed the truthfulness of his word.
O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself 
and hast enlightened the world, 
glory to Thee!"

Bishop Kallistos Ware emphasizes that the blessing of the waters on Theophany "is effected not by the officiating priest and the people who are praying with him, but by Christ himself, who is the true celebrant in this as in all mysteries of the Church.  It is the Christ who has blessed the waters once for all at his Baptism in the Jordan: the liturgical ceremony of blessing is simply an extension of Christ's original act: [Festal Menaion, p 56].

Through the blessing of the waters, the Church proclaims that the same Jesus who sanctified the waters in the Jordan River is the One who sanctifies the fallen world, transforming it into "the new heaven and the new earth" where creation will be "filled with the fullnes of God" [Ephesians 3.19].  The purpose of the casting out of evil mentioned in the Theophany prayers is that all may be transformed "in Christ."  At Theophany the new creation is inaugurated.

On this Feast we are called to reaffirm our own baptism.  For there is a connection between the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany and our baptism.  As Bishop Kallistos writes:  "In Christ's baptism at the hands of John, our own baptismal regeneration is already accomplished by anticipation.  The many celebrations of the Eucharist are all a participation in the single and unique Last Supper, and in a similar way all our individual baptisms are a sharing in the baptism of Christ -- they are the means whereby the 'grace of the Jordan' is extended, so that it may be appropriated by each of us personally.  As an indication of the close connection between Christ's baptism and our baptism, it may be noted that the prayer at the Great Blessing of the Waters on Theophany is almost identical with the prayer of blessing said over the font at the sacrament of baptism" [Festal Menaion, p 58].

Father Lev Gillet in his inspiring devotional book In His Presence meditates on the meaning of water as follows:

"Thou art not only the giver of water.  Thou Thyself, Lord, are this living water.... Thou art the water that brings fertility to the arid and patched earth. At the beginning of the day, Thou art the dew which makes my soul able to bear leaves and fruit... When Thou didst take it upon Thyself to wash the feet of Thy disciples and came to Simon Peter, who in humility protested, Thou didst answer him: 'If I washeth thee not, thou hast not part with me'.  Lord, my whole desire is to have a part with Thee.  So, wash me.  Wash me completely.  I am not like Thy disciples who were already pure: as Thou didst say to them, it was from their feet only that the dust of the road had to be cleansed.  Wash Thou my hands and my head.  Wash my whole body.  Bathe me.  Give Thy spotlessness to all which in my thought, in my will, in my emotions, in my senses, need purifying."