The Blessings of Theophany

Theophany in Amsterdam 2011
Theophany in Amsterdam 2011

by Nancy Forest-Flier

At the back of our refrigerator, among the jams and mustards, is a Heinz Sandwich Spread jar filled with water. The hand-lettered label on the jar reads “blessed water.” I collected the water last January during the Feast of Theophany at the Great Blessing of the Waters, the second Theophany Liturgy I had attended after becoming Orthodox. I know that many of the people in our church used blessed water for anointing themselves or their family members at times of sickness. Some people drink small amounts of it before departing on a journey. For me, still a newcomer to the rich traditions of Orthodoxy, the little Heinz jar represents those truths which I found so complete two years ago when I was received into the Christian community at the St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam.

Theophany is one of my favorite feasts. I wasn’t surprised to learn that, after Pascha and Pentecost, the third greatest feast among Orthodox Christians is Theophany. I love to watch Father Alexis, our priest, dip the Precious Cross with such dignity and grace three times into the tub of water in the center of the church. I love to join the procession of parishioners and take a long drink of the cold January water, just blessed. I love to stand as our priest sprinkles us with the great bunch of basil dripping with water; I love his vigor and joy as he sprinkles us. I love the priest’s attempts to sprinkle the choir members, singing in the loft above us. He hurls the droplets up as far as he can, and the choristers lean way over the choir rail, singing and laughing; I love to watch everyone in the church strain forward and take off their glasses, eager to be drenched in the glorious, festive waters of Theophany.

I understand that many Orthodox parishes celebrate Theophany outdoors. Although Holland is a country of water — nearly two-thirds of it would be deluged if the sophisticated dike system failed — we keep our Theophany celebration inside. Our church is just off the Prinsengracht, one of the ancient canals in the heart of Amsterdam, and in this tightly-packed Dutch city being “outdoors” might put us to tottering right on the edge of the Prinsengracht itself. Still I enjoy seeing the documentaries from Russia, where priests of vast proportions wearing nothing over their vestments stand outside in the freezing cold, dip the Cross into the tub and intone the Slavonic blessing with deep, sonorous voices. Around them a cluster of solid babushkas with heads wrapped in woolen shawls, cheeks glowing with cold, clutch their empty bottles, jars and buckets.

It would make sense to bless the waters outdoors. Jesus was baptized, after all in the waters of the Jordan River. The Jordan was just a river until Jesus submitted to John’s baptism on our behalf. All of the created world was fallen and foreign until Jesus stepped into the water and made all things new. Now every time a priest blesses the waters at a Theophany Liturgy he is continuing Jesus’ original blessing through time. This re-creation of Creation, this blessing of material things, was one of the truths that so attracted me to Orthodoxy in the first place. In my Heinz jar in the fridge there’s more than a little blessed water; the news of the Incarnation in there as well.

The impact that this has had on my life has been profound. It means that the other categories of “sacred” and “secular” that I grew up with as a western Protestant no longer hold. All the world and everything in it is shimmering with God’s grace and mercy, and it’s only my sad spiritual condition that keeps me from seeing it. The waters of Theophany give me something to live for. Every time I pray or fast I can anticipate the day when I will see things “face to face” for what they are, and not “darkly” as I do now. Every time we reach for the Heinz jar and take a teaspoon of water for a sore throat or a troubled mind, every time we rub a bit of blessed water over my asthmatic son’s body, we acknowledge the ubiquitous mercy of God and His insisting love for His creation.

I think of these things every time I reach for the blessed water in our fridge. But there’s a great deal more than just happy memories in that jar. It holds for me, as a recent convert to Orthodoxy, a new understanding of the mercy of God and His manifestation in all the created universe.

Theophany is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, when it was first publicly revealed that this was the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate Word. The feast’s significance and grandeur surpass that of Christmas, which is difficult for many Western Christians to comprehend. This is understandable, since the Feast of Holy Theophany has been celebrated in the East since the fourth century. It came later in the West. The Roman Church at that time grouped Christ’s baptism together with the adoration of the Magi and the wedding at Cana, all on one day, but in the end the Magi won out. In some Western European countries, 6 January is still celebrated as Three Kings’ Day.

Why is Theophany so important? Why is Jesus’ baptism a greater revelation than the celebration of His birth? What does Theophany teach us about the Christian life, and what graces does it impart? What, indeed, does it mean when we take water that has been blessed at this great feast and use it as a means of healing?

As with many great milestones marking the way through the Liturgical year, this feast can be understood on several levels. First, we learn something about the nature of the Incarnation: Jesus is both humiliated and glorified. In submitting to baptism over John’s protests and on our behalf, Jesus shows Himself to be a Man among men, one of us. And through His humility He is glorified before everyone, He is manifested as the Son of God. Theophany teaches us that the way of humility is the way of glory. Father Lev Gillet, in his commentary on Theophany, has written: “If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him Who is also God, King, and Conqueror.” We as Christians, as Christ-bearers, are called to reflect this same humility.

This moment is all the more profound because it reveals to humankind the Holy Trinity: both the Father, whose words of approval and love can be heard, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, confirm and witness Christ’s glory. In fact, the event of Theophany is such a brilliant revelation that the early Church called it “The Feast of Lights.” In the words of the Troparion for Theophany, “When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” Human knowledge of the Trinity, the basis of Christian belief, the mystery of God as three dynamic Persons bound together in love, was born on this day.

Theophany is also a time for renewing our own baptisms. We know that immersion in the waters of baptism means death to our old, sinful nature; reappearance from the waters means new life in Christ. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that Jesus’ baptism was accomplished on our behalf; we are the ones who are cleansed in the Jordan. When we stand together to be sprinkled at the Blessing of the Waters, we can pray that God will enliven the grace given to us at the moment of our baptisms.

The actual blessing of the waters is the act which might give most new Orthodox, especially those from Protestant backgrounds like myself, some difficulty. And it is the aspect of the Theophany that I had to grasp most carefully before I filled my Heinz jar with water last January. What makes this water “special?” Will it really heal people? Doesn’t this smack of magic, of relic worship?

First of all, writes Bishop Kallistos, it isn’t the priest who effects the blessing of the waters, it is Christ Himself. “It is Christ Who has blessed the waters once for all at His baptism in the Jordan: the liturgical ceremony of blessing is simply an extension of Christ’s original act.” Water itself is at once a most ordinary and most mysterious substance. All life depends on water. Where there is water, there is life. Water is God’s precious gift to us, hence it is a means of communion with Him. As Orthodox we believe that the Fall involved all of creation, not just human beings. Cut off from God, men and women had to struggle to survive in the fallen world. What once had been a Paradise became a hostile environment. But when Christ, the new Adam, condescended to become one of us, when He submitted to baptism in the Jordan, bearing our sins and seeking cleansing on our behalf, the waters were blessed by this presence.

Father Alexander Schmemann has written that in baptism, water is “the sign and presence of the world itself.” Thus, all of fallen creation was renewed and restored when Christ was baptized. When we are present at the Great Blessing of the Waters during the Theophany Liturgy, we witness this endless act of Christ blessing the waters and transforming them in the words of Bishop Kallistos, into “an organ of healing and grace.” The world of matter becomes a means of communion with God.

Father Alexander Schmemann writes, “The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water — made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God.”

Father Alexander goes on further to say that all the world exists as an “epiphany” of God. All the created world is sacrament. “We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him.” So the little jar of blessed water in our fridge contains a bit of this grace-filled universe; it is a sign of God’s infinite mercy and love; it is a lesson that God’s intention is a world of unity, love, humility, and healing.

In his essay on “Worship in a Secular Age,” Father Alexander explains that it is at this point that Orthodox and Western theology differ significantly. Most of us raised in Western Christian denominations understand that there is a “secular” world of ordinary matter and a “sacred” world of spiritual things. But the Good News of the Resurrection is a message of unity and universal blessing, not of duality. “The Holy Spirit makes ‘all things new’ and not ‘new things’.” Father Alexander explains that this dualistic understanding of the universe has effectively cut off “religion” from the rest of the world and has been the source of countless difficulties. In his book, For the Life of the World, he writes:

“To bless water, make it ‘holy water,’ may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of ‘holy water’ is precisely that it is no longer ‘mere’ water, and in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about the matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as ‘holy water.’ … On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of water, and thus of the world -it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their ‘sacramentality.’ By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the ‘holy water’ is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.”

So the water in our Heinz jar is “special” because it represents the whole of the redeemed universe. When we anoint our children with it or drink a bit of it at times of pain or stress, we involve ourselves in communion with God Whose love for us is boundless.

This has profound significance for us. When we acknowledge that the water blessed at Theophany is holy, we must acknowledge that all water everywhere is destined for holiness. For people in Orthodox countries, this way of thinking is nothing new. For instance, it is not uncommon for Eastern Europeans to pick up a piece of bread that has fallen on the ground, kiss it, and eat it. A friend of ours, Franciscan nun Rosemary Lynch, tells the story of a Russian couple who had migrated to the United States and were sent to Las Vegas, where Rosemary works helping refugees settle into American life. The wife finally found a job as a bus person in a casino, cleaning off the restaurant tables of uneaten food and dirty dishes. One day she called Rosemary in tears and told her she could no longer keep her job. Why not? “Because they make me throw away the body of Jesus,” the Russian woman sobbed. Every time she had to throw out uneaten bread from the tables, she felt herself committing an act of sacrilege. (Sister Rosemary found the woman another job.)

Another story my husband heard from Father Timothy Shaidarov at the Pokrovsky Monastery in Kiev about a woman who walked to a monastery in Ukraine to fetch some water from a healing spring for a Jewish friend with an eye disease. “But it was a hot day,” said Father Timothy. “On the way back the woman became so thirsty she drank the water she was carrying and then put water from the tap into the bottle when she got home. She gave this water to her sick neighbor. The neighbor believed it came from the special spring and her eyes were healed.”

How differently we would live our lives if we could do it with this sense of Theophany. How differently we would face the enormous environmental problems today. How careful we would be with the material things of the earth. How our sense of beauty would change, our sense of wealth. For the Christian, writes Bishop Kallistos, nothing is trivial. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is superfluous. Everything contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to be a bridge to Him for us. Everything is Theophany.

[published in “One Church,”  journal of  Parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States, vol. XLV, No. 1, 1991]

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