On January 19th (January 6th), the Orthodox Church celebrates the joyous Feast of Theophany - one of the twelve Great Feasts in the Liturgical calendar.
In this article, you will discover the meaning and importance of the feast, as well as learn about our beloved (and rather extraordinary!) Theophany tradition!
This Great Feast has two names that people use: Theophany and Epiphany. Both names are correct, but there is one small difference between them.
Both words have Greek roots.
In Orthodoxy, we use the term Theophany more often. In Russian-speaking countries, the term ‘Крещение’, meaning ‘Baptizm’ can also be used when referring to this feast.
In Christian tradition, the feast of Theophany commemorates two things that happened almost simultaneously: the baptism of Jesus Christ by Saint John the Baptist and the manifestation of Christ as God to mankind.
We know about what happened that day from the Gospel of Matthew. John the Forerunner came to Judea to baptize people. He said,
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
One day, Jesus came to him to be baptized just like everybody else. Saint John knew He wasn’t an ordinary man. He knew that He was the Messiah. Regardless of that, St John baptized Christ in the river of Jordan and a miracle happened:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
At this exact moment, the Holy Trinity was revealed to mankind for the very first time: God the Father, whose voice was heard from the sky, God the Son - Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, which descended from Heaven in the form of a dove. This is one of the most important dogmatic teachings in Christianity.
On the day of Theophany, we celebrate Jesus Christ’s revelation as God. It is such a joyous feast because it showed to the world that the Messiah that was promised to people was finally there; the ancient prophecies came true!
Before that day, nobody ever knew that there is in fact one God, Who mysteriously has three Persons. It is reminded to us whenever we read the Nicene Creed or the Symbol of Faith:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God…
...And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.”
This feast teaches us to confess and glorify the Holy Trinity which is one in essence and undivided.
The feast of Theophany also reveals to us the importance of baptism. The Church teaches that our salvation and cleansing from sin is possible only by the power of the grace of God. As it is stated in the Bible,
“As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27)
On the day of Theophany, a festive Divine Liturgy is always held in all Orthodox churches around the world. On the Eve of Theophany, most churches and monasteries conduct the rite of the Great Blessing of Water. A priest blesses a nearby body of water (or simply the water brought by parishioners) with the crucifix while the choir sings:
“Today the nature of the waters is sanctified,
The Jordan bursts forth and turns back the flood of its streams,
Seeing the Master wash Himself.”
(Opening hymn from the rite of the Great Blessing of Water)
Our Convent is not an exception. Every year on the 18th of January, Father Andrey (Lemeshonok) blesses a small pond on the grounds of the Convent and, of course, all the water that the faithful bring with them.
But we also have a very special Theophany tradition that often shocks people from other countries.
The clergy, sisters and parishioners of St Elisabeth Convent gather at the mount Lysaya, where the convent’s farmstead is located. We celebrate the festive Divine Liturgy at midnight and then…
Everyone, including father Andrey and abbess Euphrosinia, plunge into the ice-cold water!
By doing so, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. It is not a necessity, but it is still a great way to step out of your comfort zone (it is usually below zero degrees Celsius in January) and be renewed and sanctified in Christ once again.
Here is one of the beautiful hymns that we sing on the night of the Theophany:
“Today You have shown forth to the world, O Lord, and the light of Your countenance has been marked on us. Knowing You, we sing Your praises. You have come and revealed Yourself, O unapproachable Light.”
(Kontakion of Theophany)
On 28 November, we enter the Nativity Fast in which we prepare ourselves for the great feast of the Nativity of our Lord by focusing on abstinence, prayer and almsgiving. The fast lasts until 7 January.