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.