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Description and comparative analysis of the celebrations of different religions and confessions


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4.3. Theophany
Theophany is a great Christian feast commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. The holy day is a Trinitarian feast - one of the twelve great feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is considered the third most important date of the liturgical year, after Easter and Pentecost. The celebration takes place on January 6. However, denominations following the Julian calendar observe the feast on January 19 because of the 13-day difference today between that calendar and the generally used Gregorian calendar.

The baptism of Jesus is described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. At the time when John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the Jordan River, the sky opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the form of a dove, and the voice of God proclaims from heaven: "This is my beloved Son, in whom is my favour." Christ immerses three times into the waters of the River and comes out of them. This symbolizes the mystery of death and resurrection: the earthly man dies along with his sins and is the divine person rises for a new life.

The baptism of Jesus is one of the five major milestones in the gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, the others being the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Sacrament of Baptism has been established following the Great Theophany of the Lord.

In the Orthodox tradition, the emphasis at this feast is on the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Holy Trinity at the time of his baptism. According to the Sacred Tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves to humanity simultaneously: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, the Son being baptized in the river, and the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove descending from heaven. The only other occasion found in scripture is the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

The liturgical Forefeast of Theophany begins on January 1, and concludes with the Paramony on the eve of January 5. Paramony is observed as a strict fast day with a single dinner allowed in the evening. On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated, thus tying together the feasts of Nativity and Good Friday. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is served. During the Vespers, fifteen Old Testament lections which foreshadow the Baptism of Christ are read, and special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Theophany falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday, and on the Paramony the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated and the fasting is lessened to some degree.

Eastern Orthodox Churches perform the Great Blessing of Waters rite on Theophany. It is done twice: once on the Eve of the Feast—usually at a Baptismal font inside the church—and then again on the day of the feast, outdoors at a body of water. Following the Divine Liturgy, the clergy and the faithful form a procession with the cross to the nearest body of living water. At the end of the ceremony, the priest will bless the waters by casting a cross in it. Volunteers dive to recover the cross. The person who gets the cross first swims back and returns it to the priest, who then delivers a special blessing to the swimmer and their household.

The priest then blesses the entire church and congregation with the newly consecrated water and sets out to bless the homes of the parish.

Theophany is a traditional day for receiving the Mystery of Baptism.

The Feast is followed by an eight-day Afterfeast on which the normal fasting laws are suspended. The Saturday and Sunday after Theophany have special readings assigned to them, which relate to the Temptation of Christ and to penance and perseverance in the Christian struggle. There is a liturgical continuum between the Feast of Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent.

The Baptism of Christ XV CE Orthodox icon
Iconostasis piece from the Assumption Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Russia. By an unknown master, circa 1497. This fine example features all the key elements of the Orthodox Theophany iconography. The composition centers on the figure of Jesus, revealed as the divine person. He is portrayed almost or fully naked as a sign of His spiritual purity. Saint John the Baptist bows in recognition of the Savior. This also signifies the Old Testament giving way to the New Testament. At the top, the Holy Spirit is descending upon Jesus as a dove, the Holy Spirit is depicted in a Mandorla. The angels on the right side are the divine witnesses of this holy moment. They are waiting to attend to Christ and dress him after the baptism is over.

Angel of the Desert XVII CE Orthodox icon
This elaborate masterpiece of the Orthodox religious cannon shows Saint John the Baptist adorned with a pair of angelic wings. No other saintly figure is ever portrayed with this attribute, reserved only for the angels and this heavenly man. Known as “glorious prophet and forerunner of Christ”, Saint John holds the highest standing among the Christian Saints. He is described as the “Angel of the Desert” in the inscriptions of Eastern Orthodox icons for two reasons. First, he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, becoming a herald of God like the angels. Second, Saint John lived a life of chastity, abstinence, and prayer with his mind fixed firmly on heaven. This is the life of the angels and example for the pious to follow. For this reason Saint John is the patron of monastics, hermits, and ascetics.

Epiphany XVII CE mural
Seventeen century mural from the Church of St Elijah, Boboshevo, Bulgaria. In canonical Orthodox iconography, Christ’s hands are not shown in prayer, but in a sign of blessing. Rather than the waters of Jordan cleansing Christ, it is Christ Who cleans the waters. This is why in the bottom of most Theophany Icons, little creatures appear to be fleeing from the feet of Christ. This is a reflection of the words of the Psalmist regarding the Messiah (Christ): “the sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back”

The Baptism of Christ by Verrocchio
Here is one of the most celebrated interpretations of the biblical scene of the Baptism in Western art. Made in the studio of the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Verrocchio at circa 1472. The painting was completed by Verrocchio in collaboration with his apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci who painted and finished the details of some parts of the painting, particularly one of the angels. The painting was an altarpiece commissioned by the monks of the San Salvi Church near Florence.

The site of Theophany
Qasr el Yahud in the West Bank, and Al-Maghtas in Jordan on the east bank, is considered to be the original site of the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist.


Theophany - Exploring the Feasts of the Orthodox Christian Church
In this video, we learn about event of Christ’s baptism. We also explore the ways in which this great feast continues to be celebrated in the Orthodox Church, as we continue to bless the waters and reconnect this created world to God.

Understanding Icons: Theophany
An example of a theologically rich icon of the baptism of Christ with detailed interpretation of the canonical imagery and symbolism.

Epiphany troparion in different languages and melodies
In this video troparion (short hymn presenting the essence of the feast/ saint day) is chanted by various choirs in: English (Byzantine chant), Church Slavonic (Byzantine chant), Greek, Arabic, Church Slavonic (Russian chant), Romanian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Albanian, Church Slavonic (Serbian chant), Georgian, French, Japanese, Swahili (Kiswahili, pictures also from Ethiopia), Arabic (quick melody), Indonesian, Church Slavonic (modern Bulgarian chant, Polish subtitles), English (modern arrangement).

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.