The Feast of the Theophany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is celebrated on January 6. The word Theophany means a divine manifestation: God shining forth.
This feast commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. It marks one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity were revealed simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor).
The Lord’s baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan was the first public manifestation of God the incarnate Word to the world.
Holy Scripture tells us:
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… [And John said,] I baptize you with water for repentance, but He Who is coming after me is mightier than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3:1-6, 11).
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of Whom I said, ‘After me comes a man Who ranks before me, for He was before me’ (John 1:28-30). Then Jesus came… to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Him, saying, I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me? But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He was the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on Him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased (Matt. 3:13-17).
And John bore witness, I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him; but He Who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on Whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He Who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God (John 1:32-34).
In commemoration of this event, the Church performs the Blessing of Waters. The water that is blessed on this day is taken home by the faithful, and used with prayer as a blessing. People will bless themselves and their homes by sprinkling with holy water, and will also drink it.
On Theophany the priest will begin making the round of the parishioner’s homes to bless them. He will perform a short prayer service in each home, and then go through the entire house, blessing them with the newly-blessed Theophany Water, while all sing the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast. This is normally done on Theophany or during the Afterfeast, but if the parishioners are numerous it may take some time to bless each house. Traditionally, these blessings should all be finished before the beginning of Great Lent.
From ancient times the feast of Theophany has been a traditional day for baptisms. The feast reminds us of our own baptism in the hymn sung just before the reading of the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy: As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia! In the waters of baptism, we put off the old man and put on the new, that is Jesus Christ, and we strive to acquire the humility shown by the Lord Himself when He, the Creator, bowed His head under the hand of John, the creature, in the waters of the Jordan River.
The origin of the Feast of Theophany goes back to Apostolic times, and it is mentioned in The Apostolic Constitutions (Book V:13). From the second century we have the testimony of St Clement of Alexandria concerning the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, and the night vigil before this Feast.
There is a third century dialogue about the services for Theophany between the holy martyr Hippolytus and St Gregory the Wonderworker. In the following centuries, from the fourth to ninth century, the great Fathers of the Church, including Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, John of Damascus, commented on the Feast of Theophany.
The monks Joseph the Studite, Theophanes and Byzantios composed much liturgical music for this Feast, which is still sung at Orthodox services. 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 fulfill 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.
A hymn from the Royal Hours of the feast:
Why dost thou turn back thy waters, O Jordan? Why dost thou stop thy streams, and why dost thou not proceed on thy natural course? “I cannot bear,” said he, “the Fire that consumes me. I am filled with wonder and dread before His extreme condescension. For I am not used to wash Him that is clean; I have not learnt to bathe the sinless, but to purge the filthy vessels. Christ Who is baptized in me teaches me to burn the thorns of sin. John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me and cries, ‘Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world,”‘ Unto Him let us the faithful cry aloud: O God Who art made manifest for our salvation, glory to Thee!
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 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 hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
Today Thou hast appeared to the world, and Thy light, O Lord, has shone on us, and with full knowledge we praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself, O Unapproachable Light!