I must add to this post from last year, my memory of standing by Met. Kallistos Ware and other pilgrims for the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Jordan River this past September. As the Metropolitan’s voice rang out, a school of fish gathered in the water as an audience. The scene was surreal, as though standing within an icon, which indeed we were. The weather was hot – but the waters were cool.
This coming Tuesday (New Calendar) marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year, 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 become symbolic of 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.
One of the things that is nicely symbolic about it is that the Jordan valley is the lowest place on the surface of the earth.
Also the reciprocity: when we are baptised, we are changed and evil is removed from us. When our Lord Jesus Christ was baptised the water was changed, redeemed, reclaimed for God, and he took upon himself the sins of the world.
This picture is one of my favorites. Theophany is such a great feast to me, it is the feast of a promised victory, realized in Pascha.
Thank you for the insight. This Tuesday will be the first time I will partake of this Feast. I come with great expectation.
Father Stephen, your presence at Liturgy on Sunday was very much appreciated. My 4 year old was taken by the image of “crushing the heads of dragons” and the referencing of Elias as well, his patron. He whispered to me during your homily that he thought you were “funny” which was his stamp of approval :^) . Many years to you.
How did the placement of the baptism at this time of year come about in the East, as compared to the visit of the magi (Epiphany) in the West?
In the East the 6th of January was the original feast for the Nativity and also the feast of Christ’s Baptism. The Dec. 25 date for Christmas began in Rome in the 4th century and spread from there. Eventually it became normative in the East, but with the Baptism remaining on the 6th of January. The association of the Magi with the 6th is a later development, again beginning in the West. They are honored as saints in the East, but do not have a feast honoring their visit.
There were a variety of such liturgical practices in the early Church, with the East tending towards uniformity with itself (and Constantinople or Alexandria) and in the West with uniformity with Rome. It most cases it was not considered critical (except for the dating of Pascha [Easter]).
I love this picture. I want it framed on my wall! And this post was just as wonderful this year as when I read it last year. I was listening for the “crushing the heads of dragons” phrase this year and was pleased to actually catch it, in spite of my wiggling children. 🙂 Thank you for posting it again.
Thank you from me too Father. May I ask a question regarding the icon of this Feast? In some icons, such as that on OCA’s website [http://ocafs.oca.org/Icons/greatfeasts/0106theophany0001.jpg], two (or sometimes one) men are seen riding fish below Christ. Who are they and what do they represent? Thanking you: a friend asked and I had no idea.
A correction on the small figures. I found an icon in which the figures are named. One, the male, is “The Jordan”, the other, the woman with a staff is “the sea.” Thus they are figures representing the waters, all of which are blessed in Christ’s Baptism – again showing the cosmic nature of the action.
Thank you Father.
Very good Father.
Hey Father, why is there an axe in the tree in many theophany icons?
Maybe you could write about the symbolism sometime, it is such a wonderful icon.
It is a reference to the preaching of St. John the Baptist, “Therefore the axe is laid to the root of the tree…” I’ll try to do some icon commentary – it is always enlightening.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
I pray that your celebration of Theophany continues to be full of light.
I have found your postings extraordinarily edifying — almost as good as seeing you in person again. Thank you.
On your comment regarding Psalm 73/4: “dragons” has a much stronger background than you give credit. The Greek Septuagint also renders this as “drakonton” — “dragons, serpents” — rather than something more pedestrian. We are part of a very ancient interpretive tradition that finds more than mere innocent whales to be crushed in the deadly waters.