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Epiphany

The sixth of Jan­u­ary is the feast of the Epiphany. Orig­i­nal­ly it was the one Chris­t­ian feast of the “shin­ing forth” of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It includ­ed the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s birth, the ado­ra­tion of the Wise­men, and all of the child­hood events of Christ such as his cir­cum­ci­sion and pre­sen­ta­tion to the tem­ple as well as his bap­tism by John in the Jor­dan. There seems to be lit­tle doubt that this feast, like East­er and Pen­te­cost, was under­stood as the ful­fill­ment of a pre­vi­ous Jew­ish fes­ti­val, in this case the Feast of Lights.

Epiphany means shin­ing forth or man­i­fes­ta­tion. The feast is often called, as it is in the Ortho­dox ser­vice books, Theo­phany, which means the shin­ing forth and man­i­fes­ta­tion of God. The empha­sis in the present day cel­e­bra­tion is on the appear­ance of Jesus as the human Mes­si­ah of Israel and the divine Son of God, One of the Holy Trin­i­ty with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, in the bap­tism by John in the Jor­dan, Jesus iden­ti­fies him­self with sin­ners as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), the “Beloved” of the Father whose mes­sian­ic task it is to redeem men from their sins (Lk 3:21, Mk 1:35). And he is revealed as well as One of the Divine Trin­i­ty, tes­ti­fied to by the voice of the Father, and by the Spir­it in the form of a dove. This is the cen­tral epiphany glo­ri­fied in the main hymns of the feast:

When Thou, O Lord, wast 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 (Tropar­i­on).

Today Thou hast appeared to the uni­verse, end Thy Light, O Lord, has shone on us, who with under­stand­ing praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thy­self, O Light Unap­proach­able! (Kon­takion).

The ser­vices of Epiphany are set up exact­ly as those of Christ­mas, although his­tor­i­cal­ly it was most cer­tain­ly Christ­mas which was made to imi­tate Epiphany since it was estab­lished lat­er. Once again the Roy­al Hours and the Litur­gy of Saint Basil are cel­e­brat­ed togeth­er with Ves­pers on the eve of the feast; and the Vig­il is made up of Great Com­pline and Matins. The prophe­cies of Epiphany repeat the God is with Us from Isa­iah and stress the fore­telling of the Mes­si­ah as well as the com­ing of his fore­run­ner, John the Baptist:

The voice of one cry­ing in the wilder­ness: Pre­pare the way of the Lord, make his path straight. Every val­ley shall be filled and every moun­tain and hill brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the sal­va­tion of God (Is 40:3–5; Lk 3:4–6).

Once more spe­cial psalms are sung to begin the Divine Litur­gy of the feast, and the bap­tismal line of Gala­tians 3:27 replaces the song of the Thrice-Holy. The gospel read­ings of all the Epiphany ser­vices tell of the Lord’s bap­tism by John in the Jor­dan Riv­er. The epis­tle read­ing of the Divine Litur­gy tells of the con­se­quences of the Lord’s appear­ing which is the divine epiphany.

For the grace of God has appeared for the sal­va­tion of all men, train­ing us to renounce irre­li­gion and world­ly pas­sions, and to live sober, upright and god­ly lives in this world, await­ing our blessed hope, the appear­ing of the glo­ry of our great God and Sav­iour Jesus Christ, who gave him­self for us to redeem us from all iniq­ui­ty and to puri­fy for him­self a peo­ple of his own who are zeal­ous for good deeds (Titus 2:11–14).

The main fea­ture of the feast of the Epiphany is the Great Bless­ing of Water. It is pre­scribed to fol­low both the Divine Litur­gy of the eve of the feast and the Divine Litur­gy of the day itself. Usu­al­ly it is done just once in parish church­es at the time when most peo­ple can be present. It begins with the singing of spe­cial hymns and the cens­ing of the water which has been placed in the cen­ter of the church build­ing. Sur­round­ed by can­dles and flow­ers, this water stands for the beau­ti­ful world of God’s orig­i­nal cre­ation and ulti­mate glo­ri­fi­ca­tion by Christ in the King­dom of God. Some­times this ser­vice of bless­ing is done out of doors at a place where the water is flow­ing naturally.

The voice of the Lord cries over the waters, say­ing: Come all ye, receive the Spir­it of wis­dom, the Spir­it of under­stand­ing, the Spir­it of the fear of God, even Christ who is made manifest.

Today the nature of water is sanc­ti­fied. Jor­dan is divid­ed in two, and turns back the stream of its waters, behold­ing the Mas­ter being baptized.

As a man Thou didst come to that riv­er, O Christ our King, and dost has­ten O Good One, to receive the bap­tism of a ser­vant at the hands of the Fore­run­ner (John), because of our sins, O Lover of Man (Hymns of the Great Bless­ing of Waters).

Fol­low­ing are three read­ings from the Prophe­cy of Isa­iah con­cern­ing the mes­sian­ic age:

Let the thirsty wilder­ness be glad, let the desert rejoice, let it blos­som as a rose, let it blos­som abun­dant­ly, let every­thing rejoice… (Is 35: 1–10)

Go to that water, O you who thirst, and as many as have no mon­ey, let them eat and drink with­out price, both wine and fat… (Is 55:1–13)

With joy draw the water out of the wells of sal­va­tion. And in that day shall you say: Con­fess ye unto the Lord and call upon his Name; declare his glo­ri­ous deeds… his Name is exalt­ed… Hymn the Name of the Lord… Rejoice and exult… (Is 12:3.6).

After the epis­tle (1 Cor 1:10–14) and the gospel read­ing (Mk 1:9–11) the spe­cial great litany is chant­ed invok­ing the grace of the Holy Spir­it upon the water and upon those who will par­take of it. It ends with the great prayer of the cos­mic glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of God in which Christ is called upon to sanc­ti­fy the water, and all men and all cre­ation, by the man­i­fes­ta­tion of his sav­ing and sanc­ti­fy­ing divine pres­ence by the indwelling of the Holy and Good and Life-cre­at­ing Spirit.

As the tropar­i­on of the feast is sung, the cel­e­brant immers­es the Cross into the water three times and then pro­ceeds to sprin­kle the water in the four direc­tions of the world. He then bless­es the peo­ple and their homes with the sanc­ti­fied water which stands for the sal­va­tion of all men and all cre­ation which Christ has effect­ed by his “epiphany” in the flesh for the life of the world.

Some­times peo­ple think that the bless­ing of water and the prac­tice of drink­ing it and sprin­kling it over every­one and every­thing is a “pagan­ism” which has false­ly entered the Chris­t­ian Church. We know, how­ev­er, that this rit­u­al was prac­ticed by the Peo­ple of God in the Old Tes­ta­ment, and that in the Chris­t­ian Church it has a very spe­cial and impor­tant significance.

It is the faith of Chris­tians that since the Son of God has tak­en human flesh and has been immersed in the streams of the Jor­dan, all mat­ter is sanc­ti­fied and made pure in him, purged of its death-deal­ing qual­i­ties inher­it­ed from the dev­il and the wicked­ness of men. In the Lord’s epiphany all cre­ation becomes good again, indeed “very good,” the way that God him­self made it and pro­claimed it to be in the begin­ning when “the Spir­it of God was mov­ing over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2) and when the “Breath of Life” was breath­ing in man and in every­thing that God made (Gen 1:30; 2:7).

The world and every­thing in it is indeed “very good” (Gen 1:31) and when it becomes pol­lut­ed, cor­rupt­ed and dead, God saves it once more by effect­ing the “new cre­ation” in Christ, his divine Son and our Lord by the grace of the Holy Spir­it (Gal 6:15). This is what is cel­e­brat­ed on Epiphany, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Great Bless­ing of Water. The con­se­cra­tion of the waters on this feast places the entire world—through its “prime ele­ment” of water­ing the per­spec­tive of the cos­mic cre­ation, sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the King­dom of God in Christ arid the Spir­it. It tells us that man and the world were indeed cre­at­ed and saved in order to be “filled with all the full­ness of God” (Eph 3:19), the “full­ness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22). It tells us that Christ, in who in “the whole ful­ness of deity dwells bod­i­ly,” is and shall be tru­ly “all, and in all” (Col 2:9, 3:11). It tells us as well that the “new heav­ens and the new earth” which God has promised through his prophets and apos­tles (Is 66:2; 2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1) are tru­ly “with us” already now in the, mys­tery of Christ and his Church.

Thus, the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and sprin­kling of the Epiphany water is no pagan rit­u­al. It is the expres­sion of the most cen­tral fact of the Chris­t­ian vision of man, his life and his world. It is the litur­gi­cal tes­ti­mo­ny that the voca­tion and des­tiny of cre­ation is to be “filled with all the full­ness of God” (Eph 3:19).