On January 6th we celebrate Theophany, which is the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. Theophany is one of the Feasts of Light (alongside the Nativity, and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple). Western Christians primarily celebrate this day as when the Magi arrived to present their three gifts to Jesus. Both traditions use the word Epiphany to describe this occasion.
The title Epiphany means manifestation. For the West, Jesus is manifesting himself to the gentiles through the Magi. In the East, we celebrate the grandest Epiphany of all: the manifestation of the Trinity! The word theophany means a visual representation of God to humanity. The troparion for the feast expresses the beauty of this visual revelation:
At your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed; for the Father’s voice bore witness to you, calling you his beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, you appeared and enlightened the world, Glory be to you!
This is a day of regeneration for the world. The Trinity is revealed for the first time, and Jesus renews the power of cleansing by water and baptism.
The Jordan River is a particular special place in salvation history. It is this river that the Israelites crossed to reach the promised land after the death of Moses. Joshua (whose name means salvation, and is the root of the name Jesus), is the one who led God’s people across this river. The prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian to wash in the river Jordan in order to cure his leprosy.
Holy Water in the East and West
The Feast of Theophany is the day of the major Holy Water blessing for the year. Although there are other occasions where water is blessed, including at Easter, the Dormition, and at other Baptisms, Theophany is the only day with the Great Blessing of the Waters.
This differs from the practice of the Western Churches, where Easter Sunday is the main day of water blessing. The Latin Rite chooses Easter for this blessing because it is through the Resurrection that the gift of baptism receives its renewing power. However, in the East, we focus on the mystery of the Trinity and Jesus’s own baptism.
Another difference between the Eastern and Western Churches is the use of Holy Water. In the West, holy water is used for baptisms, blessings, and to bless oneself upon entering churches. We also use holy water for baptisms and blessings in the East, but we also drink it. I remember the first time I found out that Byzantine Catholics drunk holy water. I couldn’t really believe it. Upon further research I discovered that there are Latin Rite Catholics who drink holy water as well, though it has mostly fallen out of practice. The drinking of holy water is done as a pious observance. It is meant as blessing, and to be a prayerful practice. Some drink holy water as a part of their morning prayers.
The Great Blessing of the Waters
Now for the actual Great Blessing of the Water. (Don’t forget to bring a jar or special container to bring some holy water home in)! This blessing occurs on the eve of the feast and on the morning of the feast. The evening blessing happens in the church as part of the Theophany Eve Liturgy. The morning blessing of water is traditionally done over a river or another source of living water such as a stream, lake or ocean.
The blessing of the water is an image of fruitfulness in the church. The church brings new life into world through baptism. The three branched candle represent the Trinity, which is dipped, lit, into the water. The priest does this three times, in the shape of the cross. This is a metaphor of semen entering the womb, with the wax dripping out from the candles into the water. Then the priest breaths over the water three times, also in the shape of a cross. This symbolizes God breathing life into creation. After this the priest prays for God’s blessing upon the water. Finally he dips his hand into the water, and again makes the sign of the cross three times.
After this the priest blesses the people, and it is customary for the people to come up and drink of the holy water.
How Can You Celebrate Theophany
Sing “All you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, Allelulia. You can do this as part of your prayers before meals and add it to your morning and evening prayers, and at other times throughout the day.
Prepare for church by reading the gospel story of Christ’s baptism and the other readings from the Great Blessing of the Water
- Isaiah 35: 1-10, Isaiah 55: 1-13, and Isaiah 12: 3-6
- Corinthians 10: 1-4
- Mark 1: 9-11
- Another account of the baptism is in Matthew 3:13-17. Mark’s reading is short, so I like reading Matthew’s too in order to reflect more on the event and the icon.
Observe the one day fast before Theophany. It is short because of the Christmas season. Many churches have Theophany Eve meatless dinners you can attend. Also note that the fast is observed on Friday if Theophany is on a Sunday or a Monday.
If you have children, try these fun ideas! Get some chocolate gold coins or some other small gift for your children to commemorate the magi’s gifts. Talk about the meaning of the magi’s visit to Jesus. Then listen to a favourite artist’s version of Little Drummer Boy. Talk with your children about what gift they would share with the baby Jesus. Would they make a drawing for him, play an instrument, or sing a song? Have them do a performance in front of your icon corner. And if they are a little artist, make a space in the icon corner for a their artwork in front of an icon of Jesus for this week.