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Theophany: the manifestation of God

12 January 2011

The twelfth day after Christmas is the eve of the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, and the manifestation of the Holy Trinity.

As one of the hymns of the feast puts it:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptised in the Jordan
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest!
For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee
and called 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 enlightened the world
glory to Thee!

A question that some people sometimes ask is why our Lord Jesus Christ needed to be baptised. If we are baptised for the remission of our sins, and He was sinless, was his baptism not pointless? He was baptised by St John the Forerunner, who baptised with a baptism for repentance, but if Christ was without sin, why would he need to repent?

One could answer this very briefly by pointing out that our baptism and Christ’s baptism are opposite in their meaning and significance. When we are baptised, one of the things that happens is that we ourselves are made clean of sin. We go into the water dirty, and come out clean. With Christ, it is the other way round. He goes into the water clean, and comes out bearing the sins of the world. We enter the water to be purified. When Christ enters the water, it is the water that is purified.

It is this purification of the water that we celebrate at the Great Blessing of the Waters at Theophany.

In the Scriptures water, especially in large quantities, is a symbol of evil. In creation the Spirit of God moves on the face of the waters, and brings order out of chaos. In the story of Noah, human sinfulness brings a great flood, which threatens to destroy all life. In the Exodus, the people of Israel escape from oppression and slavery in Egypt, but find the way to freedom is barred by the sea. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, they eventually cross the Jordan to enter the promised land.

Jonah is swallowed by a monster from the water, and St John in his Apocalypse, describes a sea between him and God (Rev 4:6). In chapter 12 the dragon tries to sweep away the woman who represents the church with a flood, and in chapter 13 a monster arises from the sea. Yet when the dragon is finally defeated, there is a new heaven and a new earth, and the sea no longer exists as a barrier between people and God (Rev 21:1). Instead there is a river, flowing from the throne of God, watering trees for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:1-2).

The Epistle reading (I Cor 10:1-4) describes how the people of Israel left Egypt, and were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and this speaks to us of our baptism. The people of Israel pass from slavery in Egypt to the wilderness beyond, and eventually come to the promised land, the land of freedom. We pass from the slavery of Satan to the kingdom of God, from death to eternal life. Incidentally, this also illustrates why the Church baptises infants. We may be sure that the people of Israel carried their infants across the sea with them. They did not leave them on the Egyptian shore for Pharoah’s army to find “because they were too young to understand it”. Salvation and redemption are gracious acts of God, of which we are the beneficiaries, not mental exercises requiring our reasoning powers.

The sea is not merely a body of water. It is infested by evil and threatening monsters, which symbolise the power of Egypt, so Isaiah cries out:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord
awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago.
Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces
that didst pierce the dragon?
Was it not thou that didst dry up the waters of the great deep
that didst make the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads
they shall obtain joy and gladness
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is 51:9-11).

And, recalling this, when the priest blesses the water for baptism he says, “Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons who lurked there.”

When Christ was born in Bethlehem, God hid himself. As someone once pointed out, if you want to hide a needle, the best place to hide it is not in a haystack, because if you look long enough you can find it. If you want to hide a needle, you hide it among other needles. God became man, and hid himself among the human race, one baby among many who were born in that year. The shepherds, the wise men, the Theotokos and St Joseph, they knew because the angels and the star had revealed it to them. The rest did not know, until our Lord Jesus Christ stepped into the water of the Jordan to be baptised by St John. Then the word of the Father bore witness, and the truth of that word was confirmed by the Spirit. And Christ began his redeeming work by trampling on the heads of the dragons that lurked there; the prayer of Isaiah was fulfilled as the arm of the Lord awoke: the arm of the Lord that had hacked Rahab in pieces and pierced the dragon through.

The river Jordan, where it flows through the valley to the Dead Sea, is the lowest place on the surface of the earth. And Christ descended to the lowest place to purify the water of monsters and of evil, and at the same time to take our sins upon him. He went into the water to make it holy so that when we go into the water we can become holy as he is. When he went into the water he was reclaiming the earth from the evil one, and asserting his right as creator. He was reclaiming water, and by extension all of the material world, or nature, and redeeming it from the power of the evil one.

After his baptism, Christ, like the people of Israel, goes into the desert, and there he encounters the devil, who, having been expelled from the water, takes him to a high mountain, yet still claims the earth and its kingdoms as in his gift. Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but it is not ten tenths, and possession does not make the devil the true owner.

The Theophany then is the manifestation of Christ for who he really is, the saviour of the world. It is the manifestation of the Trinity, one and undivided. And its the beginning of his saving work on earth as he confronts the powers of evil in the water, and reclaims water and the world for God.


This post is part of a synchroblog o the theme of  The manifestation of God. A synchroblog is where a number of bloggers post on the same general theme on the same day. You can see some of the other posts on this theme in the links below:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 January 2011 7:10 pm

    FASCINATING reflection on water and its metaphors throughout the scriptures! I will ponder this for a long while. 🙂

  2. 17 January 2011 7:45 pm

    Very interesting thoughts about the reason and result of Jesus baptism. Thanks for sharing this new (to me) perspective.

  3. 21 January 2011 3:34 am

    i say this every time, steve, but this is why i like the synchroblog and always appreciate your deep and powerful thoughts on the subject. i agree with ellen, i had never thought of biblical imagery of water in that way before. thanks for sharing!

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