Holy Theophany

I learnt something really interesting when putting together the services for Christmas. I looked at the Synaxarion reading and thought it was truly beautiful.

In a week's time, on the 6th of January by the Church calendar, we shall be celebrating the feast of Theophany, or, literally, the Manifestation of God. It seems that this was originally THE big feast of the revelation of God to mankind. It was on this day that Christians celebrated the Nativity of the Second Person of the Trinity, the manifestation of the Saviour to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the sanctification of the waters by the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, and the revelation of the Trinity at the same event, along with the precursor of the Kingdom in the miracle at Cana. In the Church of Alexandria, it was also the celebration of the divine providence in the feeding of the five thousand.

That seems a great deal to cram into one date but my focus is on the Nativity of Christ, and it is the reason for the choice of this date that I find fascinating. The first Genesis creation account tells us that it was on the sixth day of creation that God made man. Yet, though our first parents, sin and death came into the world and distorted the image of God in man. January is the first month of the year, and the Nativity of Christ was celebrated on the 6th day of the first month of the year. I find this a powerful expression of the fulfilment of the old in the new, and the fact that what was being celebrated was the bringing of life and salvation by of the God-Man Jesus Christ: the New Adam.

Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.

- 1st Corinthians 15:20-22

I find this truly beautiful and really wish that we still celebrated the Nativity of Christ on the 6th of January. Indeed, the Armenian church still does so.

According to the Synaxarion, it was only at the end of the fourth century that the Church of Constantinople, and later the other eastern churches, divided the observances of Theophany between two dates, transferring the Nativity of Christ and the commemoration of the Magi to the 25th of December. This was to bring eastern practice more in line with the liturgical celebrations of the Church of Rome, which had earlier adopted the 25th of December as the date for the Nativity in order to highlight Christ as the fulfilment of all things, and to have his Nativity supersede the local pagan celebration of the Unconquered Sun. This left the East with the celebration of the Baptism and revelation of the Trinity on the 6th of January, so that we have the beautiful tropar for the day:

When Thou wast baptised in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made maifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee his beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the certainty of the word. O Christ our God, Who hast appeared and hast enlightened the world, glory be to Thee!
- Theophany tropar, tone 1

In the Church of Rome, the liturgical observation of these various manifestations of God to the world developed over time into a season of revelation, beginning with the Nativity of Christ on the 25th of December, and concluding with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) on the 2nd of February, and this is what we still have in our Orthodox Western Rite today. The 6th of January was kept Epiphany - the revelation to the gentiles - and the series of Sundays folowing commemorated the miracle at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, the Transfiguration, among others.

I find this development really quite interesting, and it shows just how important it is for us to hear the Synaxarion readings for the various observances of the Church, and to understand the significance of this time of year with regard to what God has done for us and our salvation. I hope that we can more fully take part in the mysteries of grace, appreciative of the sanctifying power of physical elements through the Incarnation and Revelation of the Son of God.


The blessing of the waters at Great Vespers of Theophany

2 responses:

Ian Climacus said...

I remember too being struck by the fact Christ's Baptism was "the" Feast and that Christ's Nativity was celebrated then when I read about it last year sometime. I was not aware of the rest of the history: thank you for it.

My prayers for a blessed journey to the wondrous feast of Theophany.

Michael said...

Thank you, Ian.

Yes, it really is fasinating. We don't do Matins at my parish so we have been reading the Synaxarion on Saturday evenings between the Ninth Hour and Vespers, but we've put that on hold during the winter months for practical and logistical reasons. I'm thinking of strongly suggesting that we read it at the Liturgy during the communion of the clergy because I really think it is too important to miss.

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