There Be Dragons…

Today marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year (New Calendar), the Feast of Theophany, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river. Across the world Orthodox Christians will gather after the Liturgy to bless the waters: the ocean, a river, a spring, etc.

Every feast day in Orthodoxy is connected to the Feast of Pascha, because Pascha is God’s great act of salvation. However, some feasts show this connection more clearly than others. Three feasts in the year share the same pattern of services: Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany. Each has a Vesperal Liturgy on its Eve and a Vigil the night before (with occasional variances).

The icons of the three feasts are strikingly similar, with Christ descending into a background that is usually rendered with darkness. At Pascha the darkness is the darkness of death and Hell where Christ has gone to raise the dead. At Nativity the darkness is the cave in which he is born. This darkness is the darkness of the world that is caught in sin and death – but it is the same darkness as Hell. At Theophany the icon depicts Christ standing on the waters of the Jordan – but the waters themselves are depicted as dark, or at least highlighted with a dark background. The darkness at this feast is precisely the same darkness as that pictured in the icon of Pascha. For Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death.

Thus the waters of the Jordan are revealed as Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death. The vigil of Theophany, like the vigil of Pascha, includes the reading of the book of the prophet Jonah – the reluctant messenger of God who was thrown overboard by his companions and swallowed by a great fish. This book is read because it contains the same image as the icons – the descent into the depths of Hades.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

At the Vespers of Theophany we hear this phrase:

Thou hast bowed Thine head before the Forerunner and hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

The phrase, “crushed the heads of the dragons,” comes from Psalm 74:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

In this Psalm, God is recalled both as Creator, but also as the one who has brought order into the chaos of the world. He not only creates the waters, but crushes the heads of the dragons that dwell there. The “dragons” in the Psalm are an old English translation of the Hebrew word for whales. But the word “dragon” is an apt description of the demonic forces that are defeated in Christ’s death and its prefigurement in Baptism.

In the prayer over the waters, the priest says:

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan, sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.

This same prayer is prayed over the waters blessed on the day of Theophany. The service for the blessing of the waters usually takes place by a local body of water.. At the very heart of the blessing a hand cross is thrown out into the water three times and retrieved with the singing of the festal troparion:

When Thou O Christ wast baptized in the Jordan,
the worship ofthe Trinity was made manifest.
For the voice of the Father bear 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!

The same troparion is sung throughout the homes of the faithful during the season after Theophany as the priest carries the same blessing into our homes. Theophany is a proclamation to nature itself of Christ’s salvation. Our lives have plenty of “dragons,” in all shapes and sizes. But Christ is victorious over everything that would destroy his creation – particularly the people who are His own.

Comments

  1. says

    Photo: The service of the blessing of the waters includes placing a cross in the waters – often times “tossing” a cross into the water. In many lands, the faithful retrieve the cross by diving in after it. It is considered a great blessing. In this photo it would appear to be a near miracle that anyone could find a cross in such murky depths and doubtless a great deal of faith to hurl oneself into such waters. Sometimes, there’s more than dragons to be found there…

  2. Anam Cara says

    At least the water there doesn’t support one’s body weight. The green leaves at the edges of the photo invite the thought that it isn’t as cold there as it is here in Washington, DC

  3. Collator says

    Father Stephen,
    Thanks for these thoughts. I was pondering what the mythological implications of “water” might be, as studied by anthropologists, in reflecting on the spiritual meaning of the Feast. Your entry for today touched a bit on that.

    One question: I don’t see any reading from the prophecy of Jonah in the lectionary for Theophany from the Orthodox Study Bible, or in the Greek menaion. Is this an OCA custom?

  4. says

    Collator,
    I’d have to go back and look at my service notes. I do not think that Jonah is read at the Theophany (it is, however, at Pascha). Though Jonah would certainly make sense as a reading.

  5. says

    In Colorado we all – parishes from up north of the state to the far west of the state – you get my meaning -EVERYBODY gathers atop the Continental divide and we bless the waters there – on a snow altar, with ice crosses made from the water blessed. This is done on top of Monarch Pass – quite fitting and is cold, beautiful and glorious. I can’t wait!

  6. gailbhyatt says

    For those reading this who are not Orthodox – Pascha, Passover, is the Feast of the Resurrection, the same as Easter.

  7. yeamlak fitur says

    Thank you Father for this. I sometimes confuse Theophany with Epiphany. I don’t know why.

    Theophany is a great celebration I remember growing up. All churches will be out (priests, deacons, faithful) and stay out in temporary tents built by a water body or a small spring. This is maybe 4 or 5 churches together. Others might just have one church. Then in the morning, there will be the services done and the water Blessed. Great Celebration.

  8. Steven C says

    “The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare” (Ps. 18:4) is apt description of Theophany — and it is an epiphany. A Blessed Feast to all!

  9. Carolina says

    As one who is in transition between the Anglican/Episcopal and Orthodox Church and at this point in time living on a tropical island in the Caribbean which celebrates Three Kings day, when kids go around ‘demanding’ their ‘reyes,’ and having celebrated La Epifania yesterday in church, can some one please clue me in on what has happened to this tradition in Orthodoxy.

  10. says

    Carolina,
    In the West, the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is seen as Twelfth Night and commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The visit of the Magi, in Orthodox Tradition, is contained within the celebration of the feast of Christ’s Nativity itself and does not have a separate celebration. Instead, Epiphany (or more commonly called “Theophany” in Orthodox languages) marks Christ’s Baptism by John in the Jordan. In honor of that feast it is common to bless the waters, either ocean, river, spring, or whatever. It has a very different meaning within Orthodoxy that is not truly echoed or the West (though the Sunday after the 6th is today commemorated as Christ’s Baptism on the Catholic and Anglican calendars – I believe). But it is not a feast that is well-integrated in the liturgical life of the Church (it’s really a modern insertion in an effort to echo Orthodox practice and be more friendly towards the East).

    There is a tradition of the “King’s coin” in Orthodoxy, associated with January 1. This coin is baked in a dish (usually a cake in Greek known as Vasilopita) and the person finding it is considered blessed or “lucky.” But the “King’s coin” is actually a mistaken way of translating the meaning of the feast. January 1 is the feast of St. Basil the Great. It is not actually the “king’s coin” but St. Basil’s coin. In Greek, the name Basileus, means “king.” Hence the confusion. The king’s coin appears in some Western Christmas customs as well, having come from the East (at least as I understand it).

  11. Carolina says

    Thank you very much.

    As I read through your article I was reminded of the reflections of a priest I knew who was born in Estonia and grew up in China. On the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, people would go out to the local river, chop a hole in the ice and jump in. Nobody ever got sick. He would always end by saying, Look how we have watered down baptism!

    This would have been close to 100 years ago.

  12. Mary says

    Christ is Baptized!
    I’m still filled with joy from yesterday’s Feast Day. Theophany is so wonderful, wonder filled! I’m glad to have your teaching to add to my memories of those I heard yesterday.
    -A Byzantine Catholic

  13. Mrs. Mutton says

    In Greek, Basileus is pronounced “Vasilios,” accent on the second syllable. “B” is almost always rendered as a “V” in pronunciation. One of those seemingly minor points that Greeks will jump all over you for.

  14. d.burns says

    Fr. Bless,

    At our parish (Antiochian archdiocese) there were 2 blessings of the water. One on the fore-feast (using St. Basil’s liturgy) and then a 2nd on the actual feast (using St. Crostosoym’s liturgy). Other than the different liturgies used I couldn’t tell the difference between the two services. Do you know why the 2 blessings? I’d ask our priest, but he’s out of town for several days.

  15. Karen says

    Dear Father, bless!

    Speaking of dragons in the water, I ask for prayers for a friend of mine and her husband (both Christians). He is dying of cancer, has declined very quickly, and is not expected to live much longer. Besides his wife, there are siblings, children and young grandchildren who are being impacted.

  16. says

    The blessing of the waters is appointed for both days. Often, the service on the Eve of the feast blesses the water kept in the Church for use as holy water, while the blessing on the day of the feast is the blessing of the public waters (such as river, etc.).

  17. says

    Mrs. Mutton,
    Ah, but I was trained as a Classics scholar (in which we used the classical pronunciation – whose spellings come across into English). I work hard when I am in a Greek setting to use the modern pronunciation – but my classical training frequently sneaks in an appearance.

  18. says

    Another thing that is important at Theophany is the changing of the course of river Jordan.

    Through the baptism of the Lord the waters received God’s blessing, being transformed in waters of sanctification. The Jordan is no more a water in which the demons lurk, as we see sometimes in the icons of Theophany, but it is now water of salvation; water that liberates man from the ties of sin, giving Him birth again from water and Spirit. Man is remodeled by God, as a pot maker models his vessels, using water and fire: water from the River Jordan and fire from the Holy Spirit.

    On this day the River Jordan changes its course, and starts flowing backwards, underlying exactly this concept. The river Jordan, with its two traditional streams Jor and Dan represents also our lives, lives that flow from our ancient parents, Adam and Eve. From them the life of mankind started flowing toward the Dead Sea of sin and perdition, as Jordan River does. But when the Master entered the river, the Jordan started flowing backwards, in the same way as our lives turn toward our true godly origins when Christ enters into our lives.

  19. says

    Someone asked about the anthropology of water. In the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion shrines were build at bodies of water – rivers, wells and springs. Serpents inhabited these places and were both venerated and feared.

    In Sanskrit serpent is “naaga”, in Hebrew “nahash”, and in most African languages the serpent is “naja”. The serpent is often portrayed as a dragon.

    Such shrines exist today in Africa and Asia. It is not uncommon for the serpent to speak through a woman who goes into a trace. This is regarded as prophecy. Christians regard this as spiritual oppression and false prophecy.

    Mark 16:17-18 should be considered in this cultural context: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly they will recover; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

    You may read more on this here:
    http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2008/06/cosmic-serpent-exposed.html

  20. Collator says

    There is actually a slight confusion here regarding the name of St. Basil in Greek. His name is Basileios, which comes from the adjectival form of the word for “king” and so means “royal.” The word for “king” is Basileus. There is another saint with this name, a hieromartyr I think, but I can’t remember when his commemoration day is. In modern Greek, Basileios is, as Mrs. Mutton notes, pronounced “Vasilios.”

  21. Steven C says

    Mildred,

    Thank you for the video of the river Jordan.

    The eschatological parallels of “flow reversal” that always accompanies baptism in the Holy Spirit are indeed profound.

    I am reminded too of Luke 12:2 in that “there is nothing concealed will not be disclosed, nor hidden that will not be made known.”

  22. Steven C says

    Mildred,

    Thank you for the video of the river Jordan. It’s past 2am here and I omitted to proof read my last comment.

    There is an eschatological parallel in the “flow reversal” of the Jordan as the living icon of the Theophany and our Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

    I am reminded too of Luke 12:2 in that “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, nor hidden that will not be made known.”

  23. NW Neil says

    Father bless,

    We, my household and I are newly illumined, (on Jan. 9th here in Washington state) Glory to God! May I present us as Nikolai (Velimirovic), Juliana (of Lazarevskaya), Silouan (the Anthonite), Helen, Markella, Matthew, Nina (Enlightener of Georgia), Isaac (the Syrian), and Andrew (the First Called). We have hungered and thirsted for Truth and we are being filled, by God’s grace.

  24. says

    From the poem of St. Sophronios [read by a presbyter on Theophany]:
    “The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.”

  25. Patty Joanna says

    Indeed the baptism of the ersatz NW-Neil family was beautiful. You’ve never seen so many baptismal robes in so many sizes…so much kindness to a visiting stranger…so much joy in shining faces. Two priests, and countless shouts of “SEAL!” A beautiful temple. Smiling joyful forgiveness for a loud clacking camera I couldn’t make quiet. The blessing of the marriage–Mom and Dad looked like two teens coming to the table. The real-time creation of wedding crowns from the fauna outside. The journey of a lifetime. Joy.

    What a lovely day! Glory to God!