+ Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us.
Of all the feasts of the church year, Theophany is one of the most ancient and important. In the early church, Theophany and Nativity were celebrated together on January 6. And they are both still intimately connected, as we can see in the similarity of the structure of the two services today. These two feasts are connected because both feasts call to mind the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the the Incarnate Son of God. At Nativity we behold Christ as a new born babe, lying in a manager, helpless and weak, yet still the Incarnate Word of God and Creator of all things.
At Theophany, not only do we have the manifestation of Christ as the Incarnate Son of God, but we also have the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity. For the first time in salvation history, the Holy Trinity was clearly made manifest. All three persons were made manifest. The Father testifies from on high of the divinity of Christ when he calls Him, “My beloved Son”. And the Holy Spirit is seen in the form of a dove descending from the Father and resting upon the Son. This manifestation of the Trinity is precisely what we proclaim in the Troparion of the Feast:
When Thou wast baptized in the Jordan O Lord,
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest,
For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee, His beloved Son.
And The Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the certainty of the Word.
O Christ our God Who hast appeared and hast enlighted the world, glory be to Thee!
Everything that Our Saviour did in His earthly life was not only important but salvific. Everything He did was a sacrament, a mystery revealing divine truth and showing us the way.
The central action of the Feast of Theophany is Christ entering the Jordan River. A plain and ordinary river. But in this river, St. John the Baptist had been baptizing thousands of repenting sinners, murderers, adulterers, thieves, prostitutes, liars and embezzlers. In this water all these sinners were cleansed…and the water was polluted by their sins! Just like a river polluted with the trash, garbage and all the waste of the world, Christ enters into this polluted water and takes on Himself all the pollution, all the garbage, all the waste of this world, and purifies the water, making it not only clean, clear, and drinkable, but also grace-filled and salvific! The sick can now drink deeply of this purified water and be healed. The blind can bathe their eyes in it and see again. Cripples can immerse their feet and walk again. The spiritually dead can drink of it and be given life. The repentant can be baptized in it and be cleansed of all sin.
One Holy Father compares it to a river that has dye poured into it so that the whole river is dyed and no longer clear. Christ plunges into this water absorbing all the dye, and when he emerges, the river is clear and pure! The Fathers tell us that when Christ emerged from the Jordan with the sins of the whole world upon Him, this was the beginning of His ascent to the Cross.
What we see here with our limited eyes and minds is the spiritual power radiating from the very body of Christ. The spiritual energy within Christ was not able to be contained inside His body. This energy or grace radiates from His body and pours forth all around Him into the people, and even into inanimate things. What we are speaking about here is beyond our comprehension. The Holy Fathers tell us that Christ walked upon this earth without ever leaving the side of His Father in heaven!
It was just the hem of His garment that healed the woman with a hemorrhage of blood. It was just ordinary clay that He touched and applied to the eyes of the blind man thus restoring his sight (John 9:6). And when he immersed Himself into the Jordan River, this water, so defiled by the sins of men, became totally purified. And not only purified but grace filled and healing. Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, making them suitable in turn for cleansing those who would be baptized.
Bishop Kallistos Ware says that “when we speak about the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany, we need to immediately emphasize that the blessing of the water 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 the mysteries of the church. It is Christ who has blessed the waters once for all at His baptism in the Jordan. The liturgical ceremony of blessing of the waters is simply an extension of Christ’s original act.”
So this water will soon be blessed by Christ Himself. His presence will descend upon this ordinary water just as He descended into the Jordan, changing it and endowing it with the power to cleanse and renew, to make us and all the objects and all the places that shall be sprinkled with it partakers of His healing presence, and driving from us and all places the power of the devil and all evil, because He who descended into the water has driven out all evil and the power of darkness by His very presence.
Just as Christ uses ordinary bread and transforms it into His Body during the Divine Liturgy for our salvation, so He takes ordinary water and transforms it into a source of spiritual and physical healing (primarily in the sacrament of Baptism) and also as a means of sanctification for many different occasions. Orthodox Faithful will drink Theophany water and be sprinkled with it. They will bless their homes with it especially during times of trial and danger.
To the non-Orthodox this may appear to be superstition, but to those with faith it is the firm conviction that Christ can indeed transform all things by His presence. We learn by faith and our experience that the incarnate Christ Who blessed the water by His baptism, making all water salvific for the baptism of all, and Who gave us ordinary bread to be His body for the spiritual nourishment and salvation of all, is capable of making all material things holy and grace-bearing.
And so dear brothers and sisters, these waters that we will be blessing at the end of Liturgy are no longer the waters which we brought into the church this morning: they will become the very waters of Jordan touched by the holy, life-giving Body of God incarnate, and they can cleanse us, and give us life and healing. This is one of the great marvels of this feast of Theophany. This is what is happening all over the Orthodox world today.
But we must take our reflections on this feast one step further. It was the great power and grace of Christ that cleansed the waters and prepared the way for the true baptism of all believers. But it was the love and compassion of Christ that caused Him to enter into the water and take on the sins of all mankind. Christ, who had no need of cleansing, stepped into the waters of the Jordan, and took on all the evil and pollution of mankind for all time. What great love this is! He did not take on the burden of the sins of His friends only, but of all mankind. Those who loved Him and those who hated Him and had no gratitude for what He did.
My dear brothers and sisters, we are called to love like this. We are called to follow Christ and to carry the heavy burden of our brother, whether he knows it or not or whether he appreciates it or not. All Christians are called to follow Christ in this way, but especially we monks. If we do not have this same sacrificial love, if we are not willing to carry our brother’s burden, then we are not really followers of Jesus Christ.