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Turning to the waters of Christ’s baptism

While Christians in Western traditions note Jan. 6 as Epiphany, or the commemoration of the Magi’s visit to Christ, Eastern Orthodox Christians mark Jan. 6 as Theophany, the feast of Christ’s baptism.

Both “epiphany” and “theophany” are words that relate to an appearance of the divine in a sudden, revelatory way. “Epiphany” is also generally known to refer to a sudden idea, an “aha!” moment or even awe. But “theophany,” rooted in the Greek theophania, refers specifically to a deity’s self-revelation to humankind — and in Eastern Orthodoxy, our Triune God manifests, at Christ’s baptism, in the River Jordan, the very waters themselves sanctified by God’s coming.

I first encountered Theophany when my husband and I had just begun dating; he had become Orthodox in the year before we got together, and we spent an afternoon wandering in Williams Sonoma, a fancy food store, before I realized that he was actually fasting from food and water for an evening Theophany liturgy. (Reader, he married me anyway.)

At Theophany, early Christians were preparing for another sacrament in which Christ revealed himself: their own baptism, by water.

At the Feast of Theophany, new Christians processed with white robes and burning torches as they approached their baptismal waters. It was a feast of light and water, of welcome and proclamation, and more specifically, of “illumination,” a word that Eastern Orthodox Christians use for describing the life of a new believer. As St. Gregory the Theologian wrote:

“Christ is illumined, let us shine forth with Him. Christ is baptized, let us descend with Him that we may also ascend with Him.”

Icon of Theophany
“Theophany of Our Lord” icon showing the baptism of Christ.

Christ being “illumined” refers to what we see in the icon of Theophany, where we see the Trinity revealed to all creation: the Father, speaking from a cloud of light, and the dove of the Holy Spirit, descending on Christ. He is King of Creation, the maker of water and light and life itself; as he steps down into the waters, he comes up fully revealed as who he is, both to his disciples and to the very rocks and streams.

When I became Orthodox myself, shortly before our wedding, I found myself on an entirely different spiritual trajectory through the church year.

I had always been drawn to more liturgical worship, particularly in the season of Advent, with its waiting and longing. But worship in the Orthodox Church has a different forward push; all its feasts and preparations are focused on Pascha, or Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

For me, that focus on Christ’s victory initially felt too certain. Where was there room for sadness, for the ongoing situations in my life that felt untouched by that triumphant, resurrection power? If Christ did descend, as St. Gregory said, why did I hear so little about that descent, that journey into darkness and death?

I have been Orthodox for almost a decade, and what I have found is that as I worship and pray and seek, my own heart is frightened of Christ coming into it. I fear letting Christ descend into my own sadness — and honestly, I’m afraid to encounter him at all.

Yet what I’ve also found is that spiritual life in the Orthodox Church is focused not on a shiny, false-feeling triumphalism but on genuine, illuminating encounter, on our eyes being opened to Christ already with us.

This is especially seen at Theophany, where Christ descends into the water to accept what John the Baptist is afraid to give him — because baptism is also associated with death. When Christ goes down into the Jordan, we also see him going down into our own pits of sadness, despair and unresolved pain. And when he ascends — when he emerges from the Jordan — we get an echo of what he does at Pascha, his light illuminating the furthest reaches of our suffering.

What I love about Theophany is that creation itself is invited to Christ’s baptism, that the waters themselves are made new by his presence and his love. It feels reassuring to me to see Christ love his creation, and one of the hymns we sing at the Forefeast of Theophany, in the days before the actual feast, speaks to the waters themselves:

“River Jordan, stay thy course and skip for gladness to receive the Sovereign Master, Who cometh now to be baptized. … Christ hath appeared, for He truly willeth to renew all creation.”

How appropriate for this Theophany to be to all of creation, at once, that the waters would rejoice and that the light of the world would come to them, too.

It reminds me of the novel “Gilead,” which my husband and I also read together in those first days of our courtship. The narrator, minister John Ames, recalls seeing a young couple touch the branch of a tree after a rainstorm, and “a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.”

This encounter with water’s beauty suggests to Ames that “water was made primarily for blessing.” For Orthodox Christians, Theophany is a time for blessing water.

The Greater Blessing of the Waters service involves blessing water for holy water, which Orthodox Christians take home and drink throughout the year. This service happens inside as well as outside the church; priests will go to their local water source and bless their local waters, sometimes cutting the shape of a cross into icy rivers or throwing a cross into the waters for brave parishioners to go “fish out” themselves.

At our church in western Colorado, our Theophany icon shows an image of a tiny, angry demon dwelling in the waters below Christ’s feet. It is an imagining of that spiritual reality, of Christ taking hold of the elements themselves and casting out the darkness.

At Theophany, the waters themselves tremble with holy fear at Christ; more than a vehicle, water too receives Christ in all of Christ’s power and glory.

I think I share in the fear that the waters of the Jordan had in encountering Christ. It is a deep, guttural kind of fear: What could Christ love about me? About the world I do so little to protect? About the heart that has been broken by more things than I can say?

This year, my husband, now a priest himself, will gather with other priests and Orthodox Christians at the Continental Divide and perform the Greater Blessing of the Waters, right at the heart of where every river and stream in North America starts.

He will cut an altar into a snowbank; he will dip a cross into those headwaters and ask God to meet us in them, to sanctify both soul and body. To reveal himself to us. And together we will bow our heads and drink from the blessed waters, which run both east and west, the rivers running with gladness.

In this new year, when so many of us are still in the depths of despair, unsure that any light can touch our suffering, may we know that the waters are for us, too.

Our past few years of COVID-19 and death and unspeakable weariness are not outside what Theophany pronounces. The depths of our own suffering, no matter what, are not too deep for Christ to step into. We will, in some way, be able to drink deeply of that luminous water and be renewed, illumined and loved.