Theophany – the Next to Oldest Feast

By Fr Jonathan Tobias

On January 6th, the Orthodox Church celebrates Theophany. This is the moment when Jesus Christ was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Elsewhere in the Christian community, the same day is called “Epiphany,” which is a commemoration of the Wise Men’s visitation. The Orthodox celebrates the Wise Men on Christmas Day.“ Theophany” means “appearance of God.” For the first time in history, the Holy Trinity was clearly revealed. The First Person of the Trinity, God the Father, was revealed by His Voice that said “This is My Beloved Son in Whom I delight.” The Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, was revealed as Jesus Christ, the One being baptized. The Third Person of the Trinity, God the Spirit, was revealed as the Dove descending upon the Lord. Theophany is also the moment when Jesus Christ stepped out of obscurity and into His very public three-fold ministry of Prophet, Priest, and King. He had laid aside all His own divine glory when He descended from Heaven.

But here at His Baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and anointed Him for His great work of redemption. Jesus became “full of the Holy Spirit,” and “returned in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4.1,14). He began His great ministry of “proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4.19) – which continues to be so. Since the beginning, the Church has celebrated the feast of the Resurrection as the ongoing Triumph that makes possible eternal life. But almost just as long, the Church has celebrated Theophany as the beginning of Christ’s ministry. It is not coincidental that the beginning of His ministry takes place in the historic revelation of the Trinity. Everything that Jesus did was the work of the entire divinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were all there at every moment – the Nativity, the Baptism, the teaching and healing, the Passion of Holy Week, the Cross, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection and Ascension. For this reason, the Church celebrated Theophany long before Christmas. Christmas itself began to be celebrated widely in the late fourth century (John Chrysostom was an early populizer). But Theophany is much older.

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