THE FEAST OF THEOPHANY
by Father Illtyd
The Epiphany, or Theophany (6th January) is — after Easter and Pentecost — the greatest Feast of the Orthodox Church. Greater even than the feast of the Nativity of Christ. It commemorates the baptism of our Lord by John, the Forerunner in the Jordan and the public manifestation of the incarnate Word to the world.
The Orthodox Church commemorates only one event in our Lord's life at Epiphany: our Lord's baptism. Our Lord's first public manifestation or appearance takes place at His baptism, as father Thomas Hopko points out, for very good reason:
"Baptism is the symbol of death and resurrection; Christ came to the earth in order to die and be raised. Baptism is a symbol of repentance of sin and its forgiveness; Christ came as the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sin of the world in order to take it away. Baptism is a symbol of sanctification; Christ has come to sanctify the whole of creation. Baptism is a symbol, finally, of radical renewal. When one is baptized the old is over and the new has come. And Christ has appeared on earth to bring all things to an end, and to make all things new. The act of baptism, therefore, contains in symbol the entire mystery of Christ, the whole purpose of his coming." (The Winter Pascha, p.142)
At his manifestation in the Jordan, our Lord, made like us in every respect save sin, enters into the water to identify with our fallen condition in order to bring it to an end and to create us anew for life in the kingdom of God.
At the river Jordan, God reveals Himself in the person of Jesus. He is the Word of God incarnate, on Him rests the Holy Spirit from all eternity, the Father witnesses to the divinity of Christ and proclaims Him to be His only Son:
"This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17)
Jesus' baptism in the Jordan is also the first manifestation of the greatest of all mysteries, the worship of the Trinity.
This is Orthodox Christianity's unique doctrine: the worship of the Holy Trinity "one in essence and undivided". It was foreshadowed in the theophanies of the Old Covenant of Israel, for example, the visit Abraham received at the oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1) And, as Father Hopko says:
“… it was clearly made manifest in the 'final and everlasting covenant of peace' of the one true God with His people, first revealed in the Messiah's epiphany at His baptism in the Jordan. This worship stands at the heart of the celebration of the Winter Pascha in the Orthodox Church.” (ibid., p.147)
This manifestation of Christ the Orthodox Church separates from all the others (birth, magi, and wedding at Cana), because on this day God reveals Himself fully: He is one in three persons. This is the mystery which allows us to call on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as one God. Nothing can be added to this vision.
This is why the word Epiphany meaning “manifestation” was replaced in the East by Theophany meaning "manifestation of God" the latter specifying and developing the meaning of the feast.
"When Thou, O Lord was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest … O Christ our God who has appeared and enlightened the world, Glory to Thee."
Troparion at the Liturgy on January 6th]