Theophany (or Epiphany) and Christmas (Part I)
Theophany is one of the great Feasts of the Lord of the ecclesiastical year. It is also called Epiphany and the Day of Lights and is celebrated on the 6th of January. The names of this Feast indicate the understanding of the ancient Church concerning this Feast. This understanding is connected with the revelation of God, that is, the manifestation of the One God in Trinity through the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, Theophany comprises the birth of Christ and the related events (e.g. the visitation of the Magi) and also the beginning of the public manifestation of the incarnate economy of the Son of God which is connected with the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptizer.
In the 4th century AD, Christmas was separated from Theophany and constituted a separate Feast, which was celebrated on the 25th of December. This separation had been adopted in the Western Church, which was at that time united with the Eastern Churches. Since then Theophany was specifically connected with the Baptism of Christ, i.e. with the commencement of the public ministry of Christ through which he became the Savior and Redeemer of the world. The question that arises here is why was Christ baptized? Why did this take place and what is its deeper meaning?
The Baptism of Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism
a) The Witness of John the Evangelist. In the Gospel of St. John we find the first hints regarding the relation between the Baptism of Christ and the Sacrament of Baptism. St. John the Forerunner speaks about the Baptism in water which he administered according to the divine calling and explains that the coming Christ would transform it into baptism in the Spirit so that through it human beings would enter into the kingdom of God: “John bore witness and said that he saw the Spirit descending like a Dove from heaven and resting upon Christ. He also said the he did not know him [i.e. Christ – until that point], but He who sent him to baptize had said that on whom he would see the Spirit descending and resting upon him, he would be the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. John also said that he saw this and bore witness to it, namely, that he is [the Christ] the Son of God” (1:32-34). Exactly the same was confirmed by the Lord himself when he said to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5). These words of the Lord constitute the institution of the holy sacrament of Baptism, through which human beings become Christians. The descent of the Holy Spirit, then, at the Baptism of Christ, revealed the sacrament of Christ which Christ instituted and operates through the Holy Spirit. It is the Baptism which the Lord delivered to his holy disciples as a basic element of their ministry in the world.
b) The Witness of the Evangelists Matthew and Mark. In the two synoptic Evangelists, Matthew and Mark, there is an explicit statement about the necessity of the sacrament of Baptism as a means of participation of human beings in the salvation which Christ offers. This appears in the command of the Risen Lord to his Disciples to preach the Gospel and baptize human beings throughout the world. In other words, he asked them to initiate human beings into their new and saving relation with the one God in Trinity which was definitively revealed at his Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “Go, then, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all those things which I commanded to you” (28:18-20). Mark the Evangelist states the same in a briefer way. “Go to the whole world and preach the Gospel to the entire creation. Whoever believes you and is baptized will be saved” (16:15-16).
It is clear, then, that the sacrament of Baptism which Christ instituted by fulfilling and transforming the Baptism of John the Baptizer is the commencement of our reconnection with our creator, who is the leader and perfecter of our salvation. To understand the deeper meaning of this salvation we must pay attention to the details that the Gospel narratives supply concerning the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan.
~By Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas, Phd, DD, DTh, taken from Mystagogy, the Weblog of John Sanidopoulos, (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/01/theophany-or-epiphany.html).