Feast of the Holy Theophony
Feast: 6 January
Readings in the Byzantine Feast
(Matins of Holy Theophany)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:13-17 (Theophany of Our Lord Jesus Christ)
At that time, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
by Father Robin Gibbons, Greek-Catholic Melkite Priest, and Chaplain to FACE
In all the Nativity Feasts the imagery of light keeps appearing as a manifestation of the Holy One. This is not surprising because the symbol of light is so powerful in human life. Yet there is another realm of light images which we use frequently and descriptively to suggest being ‘enlightened’ by new ideas and concepts. When our minds and souls are ‘illuminated’ by an aspect of some truth or concept, especially on a journey of faith, we say of many that ‘they come to see the light’.
Light is also an eminently practical gift: we humans need enough of it to grow strong and healthy, while the lack of it can be a disaster for our own health as well as for nature. But there is a balance between too little and too much. An excess of it, or conversely an absence of it, can destroy us: we burn up or we freeze! We need it to see clearly; but if we stare at its source, we go blind. In all of these rather inadequate images, the connection between the natural light and the divine light can be linked, but only so far. Let us examine something of a rich theological gift directly experienced in this feast of the Theophany.
St John in the opening chapter of his Gospel hands it to us in a passage that sums up the Theophany : ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’ (Jn 1:9-13).
From that imagery a whole theology of God’s in-dwelling presence of light through Christ and the Holy Spirit was developed. St Athanasius, writing on the message of salvation in Christ, simply states: ‘He became man that we might be made god’; he became ‘incarnate’ that we might be ‘ingodded’. (De Incarnatione, 54).
What might this mean for us on the feast of the Theophany? If you examine the icon of the feast (below) it will become apparent. Standing in the waters of the Jordan, that very beginning of creation, the human Jesus is revealed as part of the Trinity. John, baptising him, hears the voice of the Most High declaring Jesus as ‘beloved son’; and the Spirit is seen coming upon him. Now, for the first time since the fall of humanity, divine and human life come together, seen in the prototype of our baptism, the revelation of how our salvation may be accomplished.
St John Chrysostom helps us a little more by reminding us that now, in the coming of Christ – the ‘new Adam’ – the sin of the fall is forgiven and we are restored into a covenant relationship with the Trinity; for at our baptism the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon us, so that we too can ascend with Christ and the Spirit to the Father in Heaven: ‘Because henceforth He leads us away from the old to the new polity, both opening to us the gates on high, and sending down His Spirit from thence to call us to our country there; and not merely to call us, but also with the greatest mark of dignity. For He has not made us angels and archangels, but He has caused us to become children of God, and beloved, and so He draws us on towards that portion of ours (John Chrysostom, Homily 12 on Matthew).
Christ our Light now shines in the darkness of our world, in each of our lives, that we too may share this light of salvation with others.
May I end with these wonderful words of St Bede which sum up our own promise of theophany in Baptism; ‘Christ is the Morning Star, who, when the night of this world is past, gives to his saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day’.
Prayers from the Byzantine tradition
Troparion of the feast
When You, O Lord, were baptized in the Jordan,
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.
For the voice of the Father bore witness to You,
and called You His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself
and have enlightened the world, glory to You! (2x)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
A great light has shone on Galilee of the Gentiles, on the land of Zebulon and the land of Nephthali, as the prophet said. It is Christ, a bright Dawn appearing as lightning from Bethlehem to those who sat in darkness. The Lord born from Mary, the Sun of Righteousness, sheds His rays on the whole inhabited earth. Come then, naked children of Adam; let us clothe ourselves in Him, that we may be warmed; for He Who covers the naked and enlightens those in darkness, has come. He has appeared, the Light unapproachable!
Prayer from the Great Blessing of the Waters at Theophany
O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, who art in the bosom of the Father, true God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, who camest into the world to enlighten it, shine upon our understanding with Thy Holy Spirit and accept us who offer unto Thee glory and thanksgiving for all Thy great and wondrous works from all ages, and for Thy saving dispensation in these last times. For Thou hast clothed Thyself in our poor and infirm nature, and hast submitted Thyself to servitude, Thou who art King of all; and moreover Thou hast accepted to be baptized in the Jordan by the hand of a servant, that having sanctified the nature of the waters, O sinless Lord, Thou mightest lead us to a new birth through water and Spirit, and restore us again to our original freedom. Keeping feast in remembrance of this divine mystery, we entreat Thee, O Master who lovest mankind: sprinkle upon us, Thine unworthy servants, according to Thy divine promise, cleansing water, the gift of Thy compassion; grant that the petition of us sinners over this water may be acceptable unto Thy goodness, and that thereby Thy blessing may be granted, to us and to all Thy faithful people unto the glory of Thy holy and venerated Name. For unto Thee, belong all glory, honour, and worship together with Thine eternal Father, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit,now, and ever: world without end. Amen.