Friday, January 13, 2012

6 January
The Theophany or Epiphany of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

The 6th of January is celebrated in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Theophany and in the West as the Epiphany. I find very interesting the difference in emphasis placed on this Feast of Our Lord by the Eastern and Western churches.  

In the Eastern Church, Theophany celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. It commemorates the public “showing forth” of God, in His fullness, as The Trinity for the first time in the earthly life of Christ.  As is so beautifully stated in the apolytikion of the feast, a hymn repeated at every service during the season of the Theophany;

When Thou wast baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, 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 certainty of the word.  O Christ our God, Who hast appeared and hast enlightened the world, glory be to Thee.

By accepting baptism from his cousin John, Jesus institutes the seminal Christian sacrament. Baptism is the rite that makes a Christian a Christian. It is the one sacrament that even laypersons can perform if necessary. The Church honors this event with the Great Blessing of Waters. As Christ has blessed the River Jordan through his baptism, the Church ritually blesses water to be used during the year both as holy water and for baptism. If possible the ritual blessing continues at an open body of water, such as a pool, lake, river, or sea. This blessing is intended not only for the water, but also mystically for all of creation. It is a continuance of the great work of regeneration begun when God took on human flesh.

Theophany is, after Pascha, the most important feast in the Eastern Church, much more important than Christmas.

Perhaps I am ignorant of the Epiphany’s full significance, but in the West the Feast seems to be simply a part of the Nativity cycle. Emphasis is placed on the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. Christ's ministry to the gentiles is highlighted as is His fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah. Of course this element of Christ’s nativity plays a role in the Eastern Church, but the story of the Magi's visit is included on the day of the actual nativity. The apolytikion of the Nativity states;

Thy birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Thy birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Justice, and to know Thee, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee.

I wonder if Western discomfort with the baptismal aspects of the feast is somehow due to the importance that Jesus’ baptism played in Arian and Adoptionist heresies. In much Adoptionist thought, Jesus is born simply a man, no different than any other. At his baptism in the Jordan and through the descent of the Holy Spirit, the man Jesus is adopted the Son of God, becoming the God-Man Christ.  Of course this is totally contrary to the orthodox understanding of the Nature of Christ as detailed in the Creed. In fact much of the Creed was developed to directly address this sort of erroneous thought.

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