Pondering the Mystery of Theophany

by Doru Costache

The scriptural readings prescribed for the liturgical celebration of Theophany constitute a sustained mystagogy of the festival. The message the readings suggest seems to be focusing on two related topics. First, to realise the identity of Christ and the significance of his ministry. Second, to realise the content of our Christian identity in the light of the previous message. In what follow, to keep this essay at a manageable size, I merely indicate the scriptural references without engaging them. In turn, I offer my own meditation on the prescribed passages within the festal context.

An icon of Theophany

The Forefeast of Theophany and Saint Sylvester of Rome (2 January)

Hebrews 5:4-10. John 3:1-15. The introductory readings of the festival point to Christ’s ministry; particularly the apostolic letter suggests that his ministry originates in the eternal relation between the Son and the Father. Thus, the eternal birth of the Son, which establishes his identity in relation to the Father, suggests an inclination to obey the Father. He would not have embraced the name and identity of Son without this personal trait. And so the Son determines his own existence in essential relation with the Father as well as volitionally. He wishes to obey the Father and to serve the Father’s plan for the creation. It is for the latter trait of the Son’s personality that the Father called him to become the high priest of creation’s salvation and sanctification. In turn, the Son, who through the incarnation has become Jesus the Anointed (Christ, the Messiah), fulfilled the divine intention to sanctify humankind and the creation by way of a humble sacerdotal ministry. The Servant of God whom the prophets foretold lived and worked among us as a man of suffering, out of love for the world. This is how he accomplished his priesthood, not by demanding and expecting, but by serving, praying, interceding—with tears and eventually through his death. All these are aspects of a paradoxical nature, for who can make sense of the glorious God living a humble life, subject to pain and death? But this was from before all ages what the priesthood of Christ entailed and the Lord embraced this task wholeheartedly. For his obedient service, he not only vanquished death; he has become the foremost source of life and sanctification for us, to the extent that all who participate in him through baptism in water and the Spirit experience his life, death, and glorification. Like Nicodemus, we may be puzzled by the prospect of a spiritual rebirth which places us above the limitations of nature. But as baptism is to participate in Christ, given that Christ defied the natures by moving from above down here and from death to life, so shall become free from the limitations of nature all those who believe in him. Together with nature, all other limitations, cultural, social, religious etc, become irrelevant to those renewed in the likeness of Christ through a new birth in water and the Spirit. This is the ministry of Christ. This, also, is the ministry of his Church, today represented by Saint Sylvester of Rome (d. 335), whose memory we keep. The priesthood of the Church has no other purpose than the purpose of Christ’s own priesthood.

Saturday before Theophany

1 Timothy 3:13-4:5. Matthew 3:1-11. The identity of Christ continues to be the topic of the Theophany season, which in ancient times was celebrated together with Christmas. Within the liturgical framework, the two festivals still relate, for which reason we should speak of a Christmas/Theophany season entirely focused upon the identity of Christ and the new life of his believers. In tune with Saturday after Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s name on 1 January, this Saturday warns us once again to be vigilant about the rise of false teachings about Christ and the Christian way of life. Although the two passages, particularly the apostolic letter which addresses this matter in detail, do not make an explicit connection between mistaking the identity of the Lord and leading a wrong lifestyle, the relation is transparent. For this reason, believers should be clear about who Christ is—the one full of power whose arrival the prophets, including John, foretold, very God incarnate and so confirmed by the Spirit, the glorious Lord who brings humankind to regeneration through Spirit and fire. Believers, furthermore, should live correspondingly, as people renewed through faith, namely, by embracing the truth of Christ’s identity and of their own identity in Christ. They must live in accordance with the paradigm of the incarnation: embodying their faith in a way of life which embraces all the dimensions of life, which transforms them and likewise contribute to bringing the creation to glorification.

Sunday before Theophany

2 Timothy 4:5-8. Mark 1:1-8. There is an indisputable link that connects Christmas and Theophany, entailing consistency as well as progression. The two festivals cohere in that they both refer to a variety of witnesses of God’s incarnation and manifestation into the world. The ancestors, the prophets, the holy family, the angels, the shepherds, and the magi gave witness to the mystery of Christ’s birth. The prophets, John the Baptist, the martyrs, and the apostles announced Christ’s revelation as God’s Son. There is also a continuous crescendo in matters of Christ’s endorsement. More specifically, in the mystery of Theophany it is God himself who, to the hearing of John, acknowledged that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, a testimony which the Spirt confirmed by alighting on him. God’s people are called to adhere to these witnesses and continue to testify about the true identity of Christ. If they do so, they are, like Saint Paul, genuine lovers of God’s revelation or manifestation into the the world. This they should do, however, not merely in words, but more so by their way of life. The prophets, including the last of them, Saint John the Baptist, the apostles, the martyrs, and all the saints of any time and place, changed their lives in the light of the good news of the kingdom. They have not proclaimed an ideological truth. By the way they lived, they proclaimed the fundamental truth of our existence as Christians—that in Jesus Christ God has shown himself to us and that he renewed us in the Holy Spirit. This renewal, made available to all who believe in Christ as God incarnate, is already a tremendous reward for our hope, but, together with Saint Paul, we are still called to progress from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). We should pursue the Christian journey, keeping the faith, fighting the good fight, and finishing the race.

The Eve of Theophany (5 January)

1 Corinthians 9:19-27. Luke 3:1-18. God’s people receive from the greatest prophet, Saint John, and the greatest apostle, Saint Paul, the same teaching. Specifically, to be true Christians people must change their way of thinking and living, adhering to the principles of Christ’s Gospel. Therefore, the Gospel is the common denominator to the believers who otherwise belong to various social categories and cultural backgrounds. Regardless of who they are, their skills, and careers, all people must adhere to the same principle of renewal in order to live by the Spirit, virtuously, and charitably. Renewal entails grace from above, but also personal ascesis and the willingness to adjust oneself to the sensitivities of others. In so doing, through the forbearance of one many may learn the true manner of the Christian way of life and so receive the crowns of glory.

Theophany: The Lord’s Manifestation (6 January)

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7. Matthew 3:13-17. As the Lord embraced our humble condition through the incarnation, so did he continue to walk among his people. At Jordan, the Lord of glory, true God from true God, creator and saviour of the universe, the Messiah, pure and innocent, the source of all sanctification, took another humble step and asked for the baptism of repentance. John, knowing who Jesus was, saw no reason to grant it. But the Lord had deeper reasons for undertaking the baptism of repentance than to just give expression to his kenosis or humility. He served a lesson. This lesson has to do with his preferred nickname, Son of Man or the Son of Adam. God embraced our humility to show us the way to normality and glorification. In paradise, Adam was glorified for his virtuous life. The content of glorification, we learnt through the readings for Christmas, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and, in Christ, the gift of divine adoption. Overconfident, Adam lost the Spirit of adoption when he stoped praying in his heart, “Abba! Father!” This was when he and his consort, Eve, adopted a new manner of thinking and living, not according to God—in fact against God and deprived of God. Through arrogance, Adam lost the Spirit who glorified him. Humankind followed in his footsteps, repeating his mistake time and again in various forms. Humankind had therefore to learn the way back to divine adoption, which required a change of mind and life conditioned by humility. To that end, Christ, the Lord of glory, became God’s Servant and Adam’s Son and, by putting on the garb of humility, taught that what makes ascension possible is a previous descent. He descended to us to show us where we were, lost in the river of transience, of the ephemeral, of death. Contemplating his humility, we must dive in too into our own abysses, in order to realise our humble condition and to begin redressing our lives. All is now possible. The kingdom is at hand. The waters of regeneration wash us clean and transform us into vessels worthy of the Spirit. Back on track, we must nevertheless walk as the Lord taught us, cultivating virtue, sobriety, and goodness. These will restore to us, in his grace, the paradisal state, the divine adoption, glory ineffable. And should we work with the Lord, together with us the whole of the creation—signified by the waters of the river—will be sanctified, vivified, glorified (Romans 8:18-23).

Gathering for Saint John the Baptist (7 January)

Acts 19:1-8. John 1:29-34. Continuity and difference. This is how, indirectly, Saint John the Baptist characterised the relation between the Old and the New Testaments. This message hides in plain sight within his repeated reference to the two baptisms—his own, with water, and Christ’s, with water and Spirit or fire. Let me explain. John’s baptism with water recapitulated the essence of the Old Testament. The latter established a ritualised relation between God’s people and the nature of creation, represented by water. Water was the best metaphor for the created nature, pointing to its inconsistency and transience. But water was also what washed and cleansed in a physical sense and then in a spiritual sense. Water was therefore central to the ritualised form of representing and engaging nature, pertaining to the experience of God’s people in the Old Testament. And John’s baptism of water, I repeat, recapitulated the Old Testament. Furthermore, John’s baptism with water was a way of renewing the Covenant through people’s change by attunement to divine principles, and, as the prophet maintained, a form of preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. Christ’s baptism includes all of these aspects. For instance, the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople states that we are baptised (lit. “immersed in water”) for the forgiveness of sins. This means that Christians become so by way of the same created nature—that water represents—ritualised in the form of Christ’s baptism. This evidence points to continuity. That said, in announcing the Messiah and by acknowledging Jesus as Son and Lamb of God anointed from above by the Spirit, Saint John likewise pointed to a difference. The Messiah, the Anointed of God on whom the Holy Spirit alighted, baptised not only with water; he imparted to the recipients the Holy Spirit who descended upon him at Jordan. By communicating the Spirit, Christ’s baptism was superior to that of the Old Testament, which Saint John administered. This  evidence points to a difference. When the prophet mentioned that Christ’s baptism was of water and the Spirit he pointed therefore to both continuity and a difference between the two Testaments. They both use water, but only one communicates the Spirit. Gathering to remember Saint John and gathering together with him to celebrate the Theophany, we acknowledge the complexity of the Christian experience. On the one hand, our Old Testament roots, and so the value of our ritualised form of representing and engaging the creation. On the other hand, our New Testament status, as God’s people founded, beyond the nature of creation, upon Christ’s Holy Spirit who liberates us from the limitations of nature.

Saturday after Theophany

Ephesians 6:10-17. Matthew 4:1-11. The humility of the Lord, his kenosis, went beyond his undertaking the baptism of repentance. It took the puzzling form of submitting to a triple test, to three temptations not unlike those we, mere mortals, experience in the various circumstances of life. One may indeed wonder as to the reason for so doing. Why would the Son of God and true God, the creator of the universe, need such a test? But one should not forget that in his humility Christ kept calling himself Son of Man or Son of Adam. This was not only on account of the fact that through the incarnation he has become the offspring of Adam and one of us. It primarily was because of his mission, namely, to heal Adam and his fallen offspring. To that end he had to teach us the way of salvation—not only through sermons and parables, but more so through his own example. And so the Son of God become Son of Man became an example for us, experiencing all we experience, from birth to death through the temptations, the joys, and the pains of this life. But instead of surrendering to the necessities of human nature, to the temptations and death, he walked among us gloriously, victoriously. This he did not due to his being God. This he did by adopting an ascetic lifestyle, liberating par excellence. It is indeed due to his ascetic or spiritual way of life that he prevailed over the necessities of nature, the more or less ridiculous tests of the devil, and the power of death. His way of life has become paradigmatic for us, his people, and it is for this reason that Saint Paul, in the letter, depicts us as warriors of light, equiped with the armour and the weapons of a spiritual—or ascetic—life. So armed, we will prevail, with Christ’s grace, against the same enemy who tempted him in the desert.

Sunday after Theophany

Ephesians 4:7-13. Matthew 4:12-17. After the Lord’s manifestation as God (wherefore the name of the festival, Theophany, “divine manifestation”) at Jordan, he went to Galilee to preach the evangelic message (lit. “good news”) that the kingdom of heaven is near and that people must change accordingly. The verb usually rendered by “repent,” μετανοεῖτε, is an imperative which means “change your mind” or “think differently.” The Christian change of mind does not entail only repentance for one’s sins; repentance is but one outcome of the change of mind. In turn, the Christian change of mind coincides with the revolution of the New Testament, no longer based on commandments—unless one considers “love one another the way I have loved you” (John 13:34-35) a commandment. The Christian change of mind means personal conversion: one listens to the Lord and appropriates the divine wisdom, which, in turn, becomes an inner rule, a divine way of thinking that no longer requires external and explicit commandments. As the Lord says (in Luke 17:21), the kingdom of God is within believers. The Gospel is therefore the light that shines in the darkness of our subconscious, freeing us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15) by the evidence of Christ’s revelation of/as Life. For God’s people to attain this maturity of conversion, the change of mind and life, Christ continuously works in the Church by imparting charismata and responsibilities to its members. Without instituting a pyramid of power, the charismata, from ordained clergy to many other forms of ministry, constitute the ecclesial translation of the Light shinning to the nations. They are the manner in which the spiritually advanced give a hand to those who begin the journey. The charismata ensure that the entire Church is brought up to mature faith, awareness, wisdom, and ministry. This is the goal of the “good news”: that, in Christ’s light and being charismatically guided, we transcend infancy. The Gospel frees us of fear and all kinds of slavery so that we stand up, mature, in the presence of our Lord, bringing the light of Christ to others.

4 January 2019 © AIOCS

For a fuller version of the above reflections, buy Reading Scripture in the Orthodox Church: The Festal Cycle either in hardcopy or as a PDF file.