The Feast of Epiphany in the Orthodox Church commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by the hand of John the Baptist. It is considered one of the twelve major feasts of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church. This particular feast has several titles, which help tell us something about its meaning. The word ‘epiphany’ means manifestation. Most Orthodox refer to this feast as Theophany, which means “manifestation of God.” Another title for Jesus’ baptism is “The Feast of Lights.”
The Orthodox Church refers to Jesus’ baptism as an Epiphany or Theophany, since God as Trinity was made manifest to the world through this event. When Jesus submitted Himself to be baptized by John, the heavens opened and the Father spoke, saying, “ You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22) At the same time, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the likeness of a dove and rested upon Jesus. Never before, in such a clear way had the three Persons of the Holy Trinity been manifested to the world at one time.
Epiphany is linked to baptism, and baptism for Orthodox Christians has always stood for sacramental rebirth and re-creation. When a person is baptized, the distorted and marred image (the old man) is put to death and burial. As the new creature in Christ is raised out of the water, he is raised in union with Christ’s own resurrection. He is forgiven and made new. It is significant, then, that Jesus began His public ministry with baptism. The act of Jesus’ baptism contained the entire purpose of His ministry on earth: to appear on earth to bring all things, which were tainted by sin and death, to an end, and at the same time, to make all things new.
Christ did not personally need baptism, for He was unaffected by the fall, sin or death. He submitted to baptism for the sake of humanity. Quite often in Jesus’ ministry, He submitted Himself to things for the sake of instruction, to provide an example. This, in part, is what He meant when He replied to John the Baptist, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt. 3:15) John was a mighty prophet of God, filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus proves His own righteousness in heeding the directive of a prophet. He also fulfils all righteousness in another even more significant way.
The Orthodox Church believes that Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River is the Feast of Lights, because Jesus has through His baptism re-created the cosmos. It was not Jesus who needed cleansing, sanctification or renewal, but it was the Jordan, the deserts, the mountains, the people; it was the entire fallen world. By His divine presence in the Jordan River, the earthly source of life for the entire region, not only was the Jordan renewed but so too was the rest of God’s creation. All of life was once again given back the potential to be seen and used by mankind as a means toward communion and union with God. In a sense, the cosmos in Christ was made once again a means toward Paradise. Since the Son of God has entered and joined Himself to His creation both through His incarnation and His baptism, all flesh and all matter that participate in Christ are sanctified. Everything has a chance to be made pure and holy in Him.
The glory, power and purpose of the incarnation of God are only slightly revealed to the world at Jesus’ birth. This potential begins to be more clearly revealed through His baptism, until it is seen in all its breadth at Golgotha and especially in and through the empty tomb. In closing, let extracts from the hymns sum up the depth of significance of this glorious feast: “We behold an earthly event, but what we comprehend is higher than the heavens; through cleansing comes salvation; through water, the Spirit; through descent into the water, our ascent to God.” He who takes away the sing of the world is cleansed, that I might be made clean.” “Christ our God, Light of Lights, God made manifest, has shone upon the world. O peoples, let us glorify Him.” (from the Vigil of Theophany)
This year, on January 5th, the Forefeast of Theophany, we will read and chant the Royal Hours of Theophany at 9:30 a.m. The Royal Hours are appointed before only three feasts—Nativity, Theophany and Pascha—in order to give us an opportunity to learn more about the feast and how it fulfills prophecy and is a means to salvation for us. This day of the Forefeast was appointed as a strict fast day, in order to help us prepare for the next day’s Feast. In the evening, we will gather at 5:00 p.m. to celebrate Orthros, Divine Liturgy and the Great Blessing of the Water. On Theophany, we will take the Holy Water (Aghiasmo) from the Church and begin to bless every home in the Parish. The message of Theophany is loud and clear: God wants to re-create us and heal us; He wants to involve Himself in every aspect of our lives. He abhors compartmentalization, but has given us one life, multi-faceted though it may be, and our whole life is in need of cleansing, re-creation and renewal.