The Orthodox Pages


13th Jan 2011















































































































I’d like to welcome you all back to our weekly talks and wish you all a blessed and fruitful New Year. Before breaking up for the Christmas holidays our last talk was on the meaning of the feast of Christmas. Over the holidays or as it is know in the church “the twelve days of Christmas” we celebrated three Great events and some lesser events in the life of Christ. The first of the Great events was his birth – the Incarnation of the Second person of the Holy Trinity – the Word of God took upon himself the form of his creature and became flesh. Together with the birth we saw all the events associated with the nativity story like the visit of the Shepherds and the Magi, the escape of the holy family to Egypt, the Massacre of the innocent babies and the return of the family from Egypt to take up their residence in Nazareth where Jesus grew and lived.

The second Great feast was eight days after the Nativity on New Years day in which we celebrated his Circumcision in the flesh. Although people celebrate New Years day with the feast of St. Basil the Great, the main feast of the day is the Lord’s Circumcision. Christ fulfils the Law that he himself established with Abraham. The main theme of the feast is that Christ came into the world to fulfil the law and not to destroy it. St. Luke also mentions the Presentation of Christ in the temple on the fortieth day which the Church celebrates on the 2nd February. The Gospels don’t give us any more details of his life as an infant or while growing up except for the occasion when he was twelve years old when his parents found him after three days sitting in the Jerusalem temple discussing theological matters with the scribes.

With the third Great Feast we leave the baby Jesus and meet him again as a grown man of thirty coming to John the Baptist to be baptized in the river Jordan and ready to reveal himself to the world to begin his public ministry of teaching the people the way that leads to eternal life. The feast is Theophany or Epiphany the festival of the Lord’s Baptism celebrated on the 6th January.
People often ask why the Gospels keep silent on Christ’s child and teenage years and what was he doing until the age of thirty. In fact only two of the four Evangelists Matthew and Luke mention the birth of Christ and the other two Mark and John avoid any reference to the nativity and begin their Gospels from the Baptism. The Nativity and childhood of Christ was a private affair involving just a handful of people; Christ was not yet ready to be introduced to the people at large. Of course his Nativity is an important event in the history of mankind because in it we see the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation for the world, but as St. John Chrysostom says in one of his homilies: Christmas is like a dawn, (the first sign of a newborn day), but Epiphany which for us means the baptism of Christ is like a full light of day. As we have seen in our previous talk, we have much to learn from Christ’s Nativity, but knowledge of his childhood and teenage years would not really benefit us in any way that would lead to our salvation and that is the only purpose of the Gospel teachings. What then of Christ’s early adult life from eighteen to thirty, why are these years also passed over in silence? In our age and society we consider someone legally an adult when he reaches the age of eighteen, but we consider their age still very immature when it comes to important issues in all aspects of life. This is the rule in all societies and Judaism two thousand years ago was no exception. According to Jewish law human maturity is reached at the age of thirty and it was not permitted to teach in the synagogues or become a priest until one reached that age. If Christ had begun his ministry at an earlier age he would not have been taken seriously and would have been breaking the law.
On the day of the Baptism Christ has reached the fullness of His human maturity and it was time for Him to appear to the people of Israel: it was time for his epiphany. The Feast of Christ’s Baptism is know as Epiphany or Theophany or “Τα Φώτα” the Feast of Lights. Both Epiphany and Theophany are Greek words; epiphany meaning appearance and theophany meaning the appearance of God, but Epiphany in the Western Churches is a completely different feast than that celebrated by the Orthodox Church on the 6th January although in the first three centuries they were part of the same feast. The origin of the Feast of Epiphany goes back to Apostolic times and then it included the celebration of Christ's birth, the adoration of the Magi, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation in the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. In the fourth century a separate feast was established for Christmas and was appointed to be celebrated on 25th December. The Adoration of the Magi was also appointed to be celebrated as part of the Nativity story whereas the Circumcision was appointed for the eighth day on 1st January and the Presentation in the temple on the 40th day on 2nd February. In this way the feast of Epiphany was solely the celebration of Christ’s Baptism by John in the River Jordan.

The western churches followed a different tradition; they appointed the commemoration of the Magi’s visit to be celebrated on the 6th January and the Baptism to be celebrated on the following Sunday. Thus two meanings for epiphany developed. In the Orthodox Church it meant the first public appearance of Christ to the world and for the Catholic and Protestant churches it meant the showing of Christ to the Magi who were the first Gentiles to acknowledge and worship Jesus as “King” and so were the first to “show” or “reveal” Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ which corresponded with Simeon’s blessing that this child Jesus would be “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). In some Central and South American countries Epiphany known also as the Three Kings’ Day, is the time for opening Christmas presents. Remnants of the Nativity celebrations on the 6th January can still be seen in some Orthodox countries and especially on our Island of Cyprus. It is still customary to give presents of money to loved ones on Epiphany. This is still very much the tradition especially in villages that tend to hold on to the old traditions. My mother in law gives all her 23 grandchildren a gift of money on Christmas day but my father in law prefers to wait until the 6th January to give his 5 children and their families his money gift.
In the two traditions of East and West the meaning for the feast of Epiphany is justified, and even though historically the Nativity story and the Baptism were celebrated as one feast, the name Epiphany was originally and exclusively assigned for the Baptism. St. John Chrysostom wrote that “it is not the day of the Saviour’s birth that we should call his Appearance, but the day on which He was baptized. He did not become known to all by his Birth, but by his Baptism, and that is why it is not the day of his Birth that is called Theophany, but the day on which he was baptized.”
Possibly because of the western church’s meaning of the feast but also because of the theological understanding of the event, the name of the feast was replaced by the word Theophania. We call it Theophania which means the showing or manifestation of God because at this feast the Holy Trinity became manifest to mankind. The hymn for the day, based on the Gospel story, clearly teaches this appearance of the Holy Trinity: “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee the beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed His word as sure and steadfast. O Christ our God who hast appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.”
With the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, the Church proclaims our faith in the most sublime mystery, incomprehensible to human intellect, of one God in three Persons. It teaches us to confess and glorify the Holy Trinity, one in Essence and Indivisible.
The feast of Theophany is a manifestation of Christ very different from the other feasts that are considered as epiphanies such as the Birth and the Adoration of the Magi because on this day God reveals Himself fully: He is one in three persons. This is the mystery which allows us to call on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as one God.
From ancient times this Feast was also called “Τα Φώτα” the Feast of Lights, the Day of Illumination because God is Light and has appeared to illumine “those who sat in darkness,” and “in the region of the shadow of death” (Mt.4:16), and to save the fallen race of mankind by grace. The Feast of Lights also had another meaning. It was customary in the ancient Church to baptize catechumens at the Vespers of Theophany. A great number of Baptisms took place at once and with each new member of the Church holding a candle; it was truly a festival of lights.
But let’s take a look at the Gospel story and the deeper meanings of the feast. According to the Prophet Isaiah the people had to be prepared beforehand to receive the Messiah. This preparation was assigned by God to John the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary were cousins which makes John and Jesus second cousins. As an unborn baby of six months still in his mother’s womb John recognized Jesus as his God and creator when Mary visited Elizabeth after the Angel Gabriel told her that she would miraculously conceive and bear the Son of God. John leaped with joy, as the prophet that he already was, announcing to his mother that their Lord and God was in their presence.
As an adult the word of God directed John to go out into the Jordan wilderness to preach repentance and to baptize Israel, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. (John 1: 7). His mission was to prepare Israel and make the people ready to accept the appearance of the Messiah and when the time came to point him out and bear witness of who he was. Heeding God’s word, John in the wilderness near the river Jordan, preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3: 3). The whole Jewish land and the residents of Jerusalem went out to hear his preaching and to be baptized by him in the waters of the River Jordan, and to confess their sins (Mark 1: 5). Among the Jews who came to John there naturally arose the question: Was he Israel’s hoped-for Redeemer and Comforter, was he the expected Messiah? John replied: that he was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God as prophesied by Isaiah. When they asked him why he baptized if he wasn’t the Christ or Elias or one of the prophets, he told them: “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. (Mark 1: 7-8)
On one of those days when John was preaching and baptizing he saw Jesus coming to him and inspired by the Holy Spirit he recognized him as the same person he had recognized thirty years earlier while both were still in their mothers’ wombs. Jesus had come to be baptized by John and at first John who recognized Christ as God incarnate would not allow it. Baptism was for the remission of sins so how could he the creature lay his hand on the person who was not only pure and sinless but who was also his creator? A hymn from the feast says: “When the Forerunner beheld thee, O Christ, draw near to him and ask for baptism, he cried out in trembling: why dost thou bid me to perform what lies beyond my strength? How shall I touch thee with my hand, O Lord all-powerful, who with thy hand dost hold all things? Do thou rather baptize me thy servant.” (Vespers 7th January) Jesus answering said unto him: Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness… (Matthew 3: 15). Jesus was sinless and incorrupt and had no need of baptism; however, as He had taken on Himself the sins of the entire world, he had come to the waters of the Jordan to purge them through Baptism. He came to be baptized, so as to sanctify the waters with Himself, so as to grant us the font of Holy Baptism. St John of Damascus said that the Lord was baptized, not because He Himself had need for cleansing, but “to bury human sin by water,” to fulfil the Law, to reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and finally, to sanctify “the nature of water” and to offer us the form and example of Baptism.
The sanctification of the waters is one of the main themes of the feast which is seen as a renewal of creation and related to the original creation story. The world was created for man and when Adam fell from grace the whole material world fell with him. The whole world suffered the consequences of fallen nature and Christ came into the world not only to save man, but also to renew nature: to transfigure the fallen state of creation to the state that it will receive in the new age. With his baptism in the streams of the Jordan all matter is sanctified and made pure in him, purged of its death-dealing qualities inherited from the devil and the wickedness of men. In the Lord's epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed “very good,” the way that God himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2) and when the “Breath of Life” was breathing in man and in everything that God made (Gen 1:30; 2:7).
Christ has come to sanctify the whole of creation. The Lord’s Baptism is therefore a feast where by his immersion into the water everything is cleansed and made new. Baptism is the symbol of death and resurrection; and by following the Lord’s example we too become partakers of his death and resurrection. This is another theme of the feast. By his own baptism Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism. He showed us the form and the need for us sinners to be baptized. Through Baptism, Jesus Christ himself reshapes and makes man partaker of divine nature. The baptized person is spiritually initiated in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, integrating himself as a living member of the Church - the body of Christ. When John was baptizing the Jews who came to him he said that he baptized them only with water, but that Christ would baptize us with water and the Holy Spirit. The baptism of Christ is therefore considerably different from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was for the remission of sins but in Christ Baptism also means receiving the Holy Spirit.

To understand this we need only return to the baptism story. When Jesus was baptized it says that he immediately came out of the water and the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descended and lighted upon him and a voice from heaven was heard to say: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Son of God assumed our body thus he was baptized as a man and whatever occurred at his baptism occurs at our baptism. Firstly heaven which was closed to us through Adam’s fall is opened for each of us at our baptism just as it opened for Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon Jesus implies the coming of the Spirit upon all of us. This is the Sacrament of Chrismation which after we come out of the waters of the font we are immediately anointed with the Holy Chrism and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We do not see the Spirit descend in the form of a dove, for us the descent is invisible because the Holy Spirit is invisible. The fact that he appeared in the form of a dove at the Lord’s baptism does not mean that he always descends in the same way. At the Lord’s baptism he descended in the form of a dove for a specific reason – as a sign and verification to John so that he could bare witness to the whole world that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. With our baptism into Christ we have put on Christ and with the descent of the Holy Spirit we have been adopted as sons of God thus at our baptism, even though we cannot hear, the voice of the Father says “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
We have seen then the many meanings of the feast, but we also need to say something of the Church service and especially for the Great Blessing of the waters which is performed on the eve and on the actual day of the feast. We have already seen that one of the main themes of the day is the sanctification and renewal of fallen creation through Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. The observance of the Blessing of the waters is part of this same theme of sanctifying the world and making everything “very good” as God originally made creation. The world which through sin has become polluted, corrupted and dead is saved once more and through Christ is sanctified and becomes a new creation. This is what is celebrated with the Great Blessing of the Waters. On both the eve and the Feast day itself, a font is placed in the centre of the Church and after the last prayer of the Liturgy know as the “Behind the Pulpit prayer” the service for the blessing of the waters begins. The choir begins with a few hymns which are followed by three Old Testament readings from the Book of Isaiah, then the Apostle and Gospel readings. After the readings the priest says a set of petitions which except for 2 or 3 are identical to the petitions that are said at every baptism. The extra petitions for the day are “For those who draw from this water and take it for the sanctification of their dwellings, let us pray unto the Lord.” “For this water, that it may bestow cleansing of soul and body upon all who draw it with faith and partake of it, let us pray unto the Lord.” “That we may be accounted worthy to be filled with holiness through the partaking of these waters, by the invisible manifestation of the Holy Spirit, let us pray unto the Lord.”
The petitions are followed by three main prayers. The first is said silently the second is only said on the actual day and the third which is said on both days is the main prayer of consecration and is again the prayer of the blessing of the waters of the baptismal rite.
The prayer that is read only on the feast day sums up the whole meaning of the feast and reflects the liturgical hymns for the feast. I don’t want to bore you with the full text as it is a fairly long prayer but it would be beneficial to hear parts of the prayer to see how the Church understands the feast.
At some point in the prayer it says: “In the preceding feast we saw Thee as a child, while in the present we behold Thee full-grown, our God made manifest, perfect God from perfect God… the choir of saints assembles with us and angels join with men in keeping festival. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon the waters. Today the Sun that never sets has risen and the world is filled with splendour by the light of the Lord… Today the Uncreated of His own will accepts the laying on of hands from His own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before Him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions of men are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us. Today the bitter water, as once with Moses and the people of Israel, is changed to sweetness by the coming of the Lord. Today we have been released from our ancient lamentation, and as the new Israel, we have found salvation. Today we have been delivered from darkness and illuminated with the light of the knowledge of God… Today the whole creation shines with light from on high. Today error is laid low and the coming of the Master has made for us a way of salvation. Today things above keep feast with things below, and things below commune with things above. Today the triumphant assembly of the Orthodox keeps this holy festival with great joy. Today the Master hastens towards baptism that He may lift man up to the heights. Today He that bows not, bows down to His own servant that He may set us free from bondage. Today we have purchased the Kingdom of Heaven: for the Lord’s Kingdom shall have no end. Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. The Jordan turned back, beholding the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove and flying about Thee. The Jordan turned back, seeing the Invisible made visible, the Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains skipped, looking upon God in the flesh; and the clouds gave voice, marvelling at Him who was come, the Light of Light, true God of true God. For today in the Jordan they saw the triumph of the Master; they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, and the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation.”
After all the prayers have been said the Priest takes up the Cross with a bouquet of basil and while singing the hymn of the day “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest” he plunges the cross into the waters and lifts it up again. He does this three times and on each occasion the hymn is sung. He then proceeds to sprinkle the water in the four directions of the world. Then after sprinkling the church everyone comes to venerate the Cross and receive a blessing with the water. After the service everyone partakes of the water and people bring bottles with them to fill so that they can have the water at home to partake whenever they fill the need. During the rest of the day the Priest will go around the homes of the faithful blessing each room with the blessed water. In towns this is not so evident anymore. Many are overwhelmed with joy that a priest should visit their home to bless it, but because most town communities have become multi-racial and multi-religious, there are those who react negatively to a priest knocking on their door so most priests in towns have either stopped this tradition or only go to the homes of the parishioners who have asked them to go. Thankfully in villages the tradition is still very much alive and people eagerly wait for the priest with open doors and gifts. I go around the village with my three daughters and one holds a purse for the money gifts and another holds a basket which is continually being filled with chocolates, cakes and fruit.
Another custom which you are sure to have seen on the TV is the throwing of the cross into the sea or some other large body of water. This is just an extension of the blessing of waters. The Bishop followed by the town clergy and the people walk in procession to the sea and after a short introduction the Bishop throws the Cross into the sea singing the Hymn of the day. In the sea are swimmers who race to be the first to recover the Cross which is considered a special blessing.
Before we finish for today I’d like to say something about partaking of the Blessed water because there is a great misunderstanding among the people of what is permitted and what is not. You will hear people saying that you are not allowed to drink of the water if you have not fasted beforehand. The Great feasts like the Nativity and Pascha have a period of fasting before the feast. The feast of Theophany has just the one day of fasting before the feast which is observed as a strict fast. The fast is not kept so that we can purify ourselves and become worthy to partake of the blessed water. If this was the case then the waters blessed on the eve of the feast would be in vain because the eve is not preceded by a fast and so no one would be able to partake. The fast before the feast like any fast before a great feast is observed as a tool of preparation to help us understand the meaning of the feast. Of course as the church ascribes a fast on the eve, then our partaking of the waters on the actual day has naturally been preceded by a fast. What people also tend to not understand is that they should first have partaken of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ before they approach to partake of the water. This is another great and serious misunderstanding. You will hear people say that the partaking of the water of the Great Blessing is like having Holy Communion and that if you partake of this water then its like having communion for the whole year. I can only assume that this is a satanic invention to keep people away from the holy Chalice or that people invented it to justify to others why they didn’t practice regular participation in the Holy Mysteries.
Certainly the blessed water has sanctification qualities but nothing can take the place of Holy Communion. One other thing people say is that you are not allowed to drink of the water blessed on the eve, but only from the water blessed on the day. They say that the water blessed on the eve is only for sprinkling the fields for a good crop and for sprinkling the animals. Do not listen to such rubbish: the waters of both days are exactly the same and except for the one extra prayer said on the day, the blessing of both is identical in everyway.