Themes of the Theophany
Updated: Jan 4
‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’.
Galatians 3, 27-29.
‘For our citizenship is in heaven’. Philippians 4, 20.
‘Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should also walk in the newness of life. For we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin’.
Romans 6, 4-6.
It started with a family on the move, complying with an imperial decree to return to their home town to be taxed – all very mundane. From the east, bearing gifts and following a star, some erudite men appeared, known as the Magi, and generally believed to have been Zoroastrians, possessing some exclusive inside information about the birth of Christ. The celebration of their sojourn to venerate the new-born child is marked in the West by the Feast of the ‘Epiphany’, a manifestation from above (also often used in modern English for a definitive moment of perception or insight), which seems very appropriate for those who examined the heavens. Where is the bridge between this and the ‘Theophany’, the manifestation of the triune God in Christ’s baptism? The Nativity was a Theophany, but not THE Theophany in the sense of our Orthodox feast.
The Magi were the vanguard of the Gentiles, foreshadowing the conversion of the nations as foretold in Isaiah. As we can see from the Galatians quote, ethnicity, along with other hitherto defining identities, would now be unified in Christ, making us all descendants of Abraham, whose Covenant with God is observed by Christ’s circumcision (celebrated between the Nativity and Theophany). So the Magi, being the first foreigners to arrive, were also forerunners, but not THE Forerunner, whom we know to be St. John the Baptizer of Christ, who saw his task as participating in the inevitable ‘increase’ of Christ’s revelation to the world.
When we are baptised into Christ – and in Orthodoxy it is really into, as baptism involves immersion, representing a crossing point between Christ in the womb and His burial – we ‘put on’ Christ. We emerge from the water, as if from the womb, and are clothed, as Christ was clothed in the manger, and as any new-born would be clothed. This seems a little external until we consider that at the Sacrament of Baptism and Chrismation we are given a Cross to wear too, sealing our witness to Christ in the Spirit. In this way, our earthly designations of ethnicity, birth status and gender are subjugated to our 'citizenship of heaven’ and this defines our nationhood. It is a moment of great joy; in the Coptic icon of Christ’s baptism that I have chosen, we can see that the fish are flying heavenward in a dance, deferring to their Creator. In the celebration of Orthodox Baptism/Chrismation, the newly illumined is led three times around the font in a simulation of such a dance, or even of the ‘Great Dance’ (a term CS Lewis used to describe the Holy Trinity), while the words of Galatians 3,27 are sung. But those baptised in Christ are not only reborn of the Spirit but also buried with Christ, as is observed in the quote from Romans. Our new clothing is not only symbolic of the swaddling clothes of an infant, but is at the same time a burial shroud, in which we have confidence of the Resurrection; our ‘newness of life’ involves rebirth and freedom in the united body of the Church – but only through the death of the ‘old man’.
Water has many properties: in a river like the Jordan, where our Lord was baptised, it flows, whereby in a lake it is still. in Chinese philosophy, water is soft and flexible, but can erode hard rocks in its movement, whereas in its stillness is found its energy. In our personality and purpose, we must strive to be like Christ, having ‘put Him on’ in Baptism. Consider how God became man - and like the water that He had created to give life and in which He was proclaimed in the Trinity - to cleanse, purify and sanctify (but not to sanitize); to calm, pacificate and subdue (but not to repress); to heal, reconcile and repair the relationship between Him and man, not to restore it to its former nature, which was the result of the Fall. It is in the Theophany that the sealing of New Covenant is heralded.
There is a history regarding the feasts we celebrate at this time of year, starting with the Nativity, an event caught up in the realities of life such as paying taxes, but through which both time and space have been sanctified in eternity. The terminology of 'Epiphany' for a Feast that in the West marks the visitation of the Magi, is also applied by Orthodox churches to Christ's baptism, often because westerners may not be familiar with the term 'Theophany'. There is no doubt that the two words are closely related, and there is nothing wrong with the word 'Epiphany', wherever it is applied. We should certainly remind ourselves that Christ was born for all and that the Magi were the precursors of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial Christianity of today, which is found across the nations. Yet 'Theophany' encapsulates the fullness of Christ's baptism with its revelation, in the waters of the Jordan, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at which nature rejoices. All of this is marked to in our Orthodox baptism, which in turn marks us and through which we endeavour to make our mark on this fallen world. We are working to be worthy of having 'put on Christ' in His birth and death, in the certain promise of His holy resurrection.