In the Orthodox Christian Church, the Feast of Holy Theophany is traditionally one of the most important and significant days in the liturgical year, second only to the Feast of the Resurrection (Holy Pascha, Easter) and on par with Holy Pentecost (The Descent of the Holy Spirit). In the early Church this “Holy Day” was the culmination of a twelve day celebration of the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Historically, Theophany even predates Nativity (Christmas) which was set apart later, but should be understood as always having a place in the greater celebration of the Incarnation.
The historical event commemorated at Theophany, the Baptism of Jesus Christ, can be found in the New Testament, in all four Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-23, John 1:29-33). The passages are short, and with the exception of John’s Gospel being from the first-person perspective of John the Baptist the details are similar. Jesus shows up at the river Jordan where John is preaching and baptizing. Jesus approaches to be baptized. John, recognizing that this is the Son of God, the Messiah whom John had preached, does not wish to baptize Him, but rather says “It is I who am in need of baptism!” Jesus convinces John to baptize Him. At the moment of baptism, a voice from heaven says “This is my son in whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus ‘in the form of a dove.’
For most of my life as a Christian, this event was part of the story of Jesus that I learned about, but, unlike the significance of His birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, His baptism wasn’t something often reflected upon. All of that changed when I attended my first Orthodox service, which happened to be Holy Theophany.
I’ll be honest, it may not have been the best ‘introductory’ service for me and my young family (including a newborn) to attend. It was long. They had a service after the service, which, now I take as business as usual (The joke goes: You might be Orthodox if you pray before you pray). Oh, and there was water. Lots of water, water in a large font in the middle of the church, people drinking this water, water being flung about (including on us) by a guy in a weird hat holding a brush. Strange. But clearly this whole thing was a very big deal in the Orthodox Church. I didn’t get it, but I knew there must be something significant going on here.
In the years since that first frightful and confusing encounter with Theophany I have read many explanations, received guidance, been to and now even served many of these water-soaked celebrations of Jesus baptism. Its become one of my favorite “Holy Days.” There’s certainly a richness in the hymns and readings in the services, which explore the mystery of what was accomplished at Theophany. The Holy Trinity is revealed, “made manifest,” with the voice of the Father, the Spirit as a dove, and the Son in the water. This clear teaching guards against the still circulated heresy that Jesus ‘became’ divine at His baptism. The Church never taught that, but always held that Jesus does not change at this moment of baptism. Rather, the voice of the Father and the Spirit as a dove is revelation for our sake. It shows that even in the Son’s ‘unique’ work of becoming man, the Father and the Spirit are still inseparably involved, the Divine Nature being undivided, and Jesus Christ being fully God, coeternal with the Father and the Spirit. Theophany is also significant as it is the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry (of course, after he spends 40 days in the desert).
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the depth and wealth of teaching that can be found in the Fathers concerning Theophany. Its beautiful, all of it.But its the water that really gets me. Water is such a simple but profound way for God to show His love and promise of healing to a broken world. The Church Fathers teach us that since Christ had no need to be baptized, for He was without sin, there is a ‘reverse’ action that occurs. While in our baptism, the water sanctifies us, at Christ’s baptism, He sanctifies the water! Think of it. That water in the river Jordan was made new, and that water flowed throughout the world, carrying with it the promise that Christ had come not just to ‘save souls’ but to renew everything!
In God’s great care for our condition He used something as elemental as water, something we are made up of, something we must have to live, to teach us about His relationship with us. First, He cares about what we need. Second, He cares about all of creation. Third, we are shown a deep truth about what our actual primary need is: that is a need for God.
Abba Poemen, one of the “Desert Fathers” once gave a word where he reflected on Psalm 42:1: ‘As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.” He said that often deer (or harts, probably a desert gazelle) who are in the desert, on top of being in a place of little water, also face venomous animals and poisonous plants, which, when being afflicted either by bites or by eating, cause sickness that makes the deer single-minded in finding water to assuage the burning (perhaps a fever). Abba Poemen likened it to monks who are often ‘burned by the venom’ of demons and temptations. The monk longs for the springs of living water, for God, for prayer, for sacraments, to be relieved and purified of the bitterness of the evil one.
Indeed, anyone who has experienced illness that involved fever knows how acute the need for water is. Thirst that we often easily assuage on a normal day and therefore take for granted can become quite relentless when the body is fighting an illness. Doctors will always tell a patient who comes in battling a cold or virus that hydration is among the most important and essential factors in relief. If we, like Abba Poemen, see this in an eternal, spiritual light, we can recognize our own elemental, critical need for the living water of God. Not only are we truly in need each day for God to provide for our bodily needs, our bodily hydration, but even more so, we cannot survive spiritually without God’s provision. We often find ourselves in a desert, becoming weak and trying to assuage our thirst with things that will not suffice. Only the living water of God can do this. We have often been poisoned by attacks, by words of others that lead us to resent, seek revenge, or hate. We have often fed on things spiritually poisonous and have become sick. It is in this state, even in our sin, that God has promised not only His forgiveness, but also that we can partake of living water that does more than give us the knowledge of our eventual healing, but begins that work even now of satisfying thirsty souls.