Title: The Feast of Epiphany
Subject: The Feast of Epiphany (Theophany) is celebrated on January 6. This lesson studies the scripture, iconography, hymnology, and traditions surrounding this feast.
Age: 13 + years
Liturgical Time: January 6
Note: This is the fourth class in the Twelve Great Feast series.
Doctrinal Content: Having just celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, the Church, as the Gospels, moves from Bethlehem and Nazareth to the River Jordan.
Direct Aim: The direct aim is to become more familiar with the Feast of Epiphany/ Theophany through examining history, iconography, hymns and traditions involved with this feast.
Indirect Aim: Through studying the Feast of Epiphany, we can gain a better understanding of the Trinity through the Baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist.
Materials for the Lesson Plan
Note taking is recommended for students.
Icon of the Feast of Epiphany
Begin with a prayer and welcome the students.
The Feast of Epiphany/Theophany is celebrated each year on January 6. This date was arrived at by the Eastern Church by the 4th century. It was introduced into the western church after the 4th century, but the day also includes a commemoration of the Magi and of the miracle in Cana of Galilee.
Take a moment and review the time before the feast: We have just celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, and the Church, like the Gospels, moves from Bethlehem and Nazareth to the River Jordan. There are events that are shrouded in mystery and are a bit obscure. For example, what do we know of Christ's life before His public ministry? We know only very little; we now move to that portion of His ministry often called His public ministry.
Now the Church heralds this move towards this feast, as we did with the feast of the Nativity, spiritually, in the sense of Kairos. We go spiritually in the sense that we are to be present at the River Jordan where the Father will manifest the Son. A hymn from the Sunday that precedes Epiphany signals the movement in this way:
"Go ye, O angelic powers, moving on from Bethlehem, we shall go, guided by the angels, towards the river where the Father will manifest his Son."
Think of it this way: just as the angels were present and men called, too, to be at the Lord's nativity, likewise the angels accompany His entrance into the Jordan and man is called to witness the event. The Church also moves us towards the feast by working on our understanding of that great Mystery, Holy Baptism. This is done on the eve of the feast. The duel meaning of Baptism is given in the hymns. We are reminded that Baptism is for the purification and remission of sins, but it is also for the illumination and participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, being mindful of the message of Christ's baptism, we must be careful that we do not reduce this feast to a simple commemoration of Christ's baptism and the foreshadowing of our own. That is to say, our meditation and our prayer must not be simply one of petition, a prayer and a hope for the forgiveness of sins. Rather, it must be first and foremost one of praise and thanksgiving to God. Finally, the feast of Epiphany is a feast that brings us more deeply into the identity, the work, and the mystery of Christ (More on this as we go.).
Continuing now with our reflection on the time leading up to this great feast, we turn our attention to the Sunday before Epiphany. In order to see what message the Church provides for us, we will look at the readings associated with the liturgy that Sunday.
- Epistle, 2 Timothy 4.5-8. This section concerns itself with instructions to Timothy from St. Paul. St. Paul is instructing him to offer himself up.
- Gospel, Mark 1.1-8. St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner, is highlighted on this day. He presents to the world Jesus Christ.
Certainly the Church pauses also on this Sunday before the feast to consider St. John himself. For example, St. John the Baptist is lifted up, and in this Gospel we see him as the voice in the wilderness, the man crying out, preaching the baptism of repentance as a way of preparing for the coming of the Lord. Saint John is the ascetical figure who lives in the desert, clothed in camel's hair, eating locusts and wild honey. His message is that there is One who is coming, and I am not worthy to tie this One's sandals. Moreover, Saint John informs us that this One will baptize not simply with water but the Holy Spirit.
Of course this focus on St. John the Sunday prior to the feast of Epiphany is pedagogical. The Church is delivering a message, and it is that in order for us to be prepared for the Baptism offered by Christ we must become moral and repent of our sins. We learn that we must be upright in heart and in outward action, purifying ourselves in this way.
It is also true that the context of this feast is set by the Feast of the Nativity and fast that precede both. We have undergone the preparation of the Advent fast and we have reflected on the coming of the Messiah in studying the Feast of the Nativity. And now with this feast of Epiphany we see Him revealed plainly to the world.
Great Hours and Vespers for the Feast
Like the feast of the Nativity and like that of Pascha, the Church spends a great deal of time the day before preparing us for the feast. Readings from the Old and New Testament recount through scripture the meaning of the feast itself. We will cover these texts in our normal course near the end of our notes.
Having spoken about the context for this feast, by speaking about the time leading up to it, we should now turn our attention to the feast itself and try as best as we are able to understand its meaning. To begin, we can say that after the feasts of Pascha and Pentecost, this feast is the most important to the Church. The feast itself commemorates the baptism of our Lord in the Jordan river by St. John. More generally it brings to mind the manifestation of the incarnate Word to the world. It is also a Theophany, or theophanies, for in this event, God is revealed as Trinity.
We can make additional points regarding the feast. In particular we learn in the hymns of the Church that what is viewed on earth has a heavenly dimension; that our salvation comes through purification and cleansing; that the Spirit comes through the water; and that through our descent into the water our ascent to God is made possible. We also apprehend the true light of the world which appears in Christ. And finally the Trinity is revealed as a source of salvation and contemplation. Divine Love and Communion is revealed (Perichoresis), and as the feast hymn proclaims:
"When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was revealed. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee thy beloved Son and the Spirit in the form of the dove confirmed the word of the Father to be true. O Christ our God who has appeared and enlightened the world, Glory to Thee."
Moving more deeply into this feast we come to understand something about the man Jesus. He is God, the Second Person of the Trinity. He reveals His divinity to us with humility and glory. This is a key in attempting to understand Christ. What we are saying is that every manifestation of His identity is also a manifestation of His humility and His glory. This is true in history but also true in the inner spiritual life of those who come to know The Christ. If these realities are separated, an error then occurs that makes false the entire spiritual life. On a personal level this means we are constantly forced to approach Christ from two vantage points simultaneously.
Now we said earlier that Epiphany is a Theophany. It is the feast which celebrates the baptism of Christ, and at the same time the manifestation, the revelation of God. We can recall that at His birth a handful of people were fortunate to come away with a limited understanding of who the small babe that lay in the manger was. While at His baptism, the disciples of John, the crowds and all present at the Jordan that day find out the identity of this man.
How does this occur? First in humility: the Lord submits Himself to be baptized by John. What was John's baptism? It was a washing of sin, a sign of repentance. But Christ had no sin and thus no need to repent. At the same time we understand John's baptism as a precursor and a preparatory but incomplete step to the baptism of the Holy Spirit conferred by the Church. Thus Christ, in stepping into the waters, submits Himself, which is a manifestation of His humility, while at the same time taking what is incomplete and preparatory and fulfilling it and bringing it to fruition by the very act. Thus He transforms John's baptism into that which takes the imperfect and perfects, the unclean and makes clean, the incomplete and makes whole.
Jesus also submits to this baptism; and through it taking on the sin of us all; and through it calling our attention to the need for each who wish to draw near to the waters of baptism to first repent.
Theophany also gives us an opportunity to consider the Holy Trinity and to consider the glory that is Christ's. In the event of Christ's baptism the Beloved Son steps into the Jordan, while the Father's voice is heard stating that "this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" and the Spirit confirms the words of the Father. This is a Theophany. God is revealed. Christ is glorified. For us what is revealed is more than the identity of God; namely that He Is Trinity.
Yet an aspect of the Trinity far more important is Love. We hear the Father call His Son, His beloved. What tender words! What an expression! God speaks to God in love. We come to understand that our own comprehension and contemplation of Jesus must include and is confined to this reality of love, Divine love. That is to say that we are literally unable to understand the Son apart from the love of the Father and the deep mystery of this intimacy of Divine Persons (I can't emphasize this enough.).
This may be why one of the most ancient names for this feast was the Feast of Lights. The light we behold is nothing else but Divine Love. This is the "Thing" that illumines the universe! Love! This love becomes the inner illumination that provides the soul with its direction. The "Thing" that steadies the entire spiritual life, Love.
Finally, the feast teaches us about conversion. This event in the life of Christ is to bring us to our own inner illumination and conversion, to that first meeting between a human soul and her Savior. When we accept Him and decide to follow Him, we can say that the occasion of Christ's Baptism and in bringing it to mind, the believer should and must review their own baptism. We must renew the spirit of baptismal grace in our lives. We must revive the sacramental grace of our day of baptism that has been suspended by our sin.
Show and discuss the icon of Epiphany.
Royal Hours (said on the eve of Theophany):
- Psalm (all numbering will be according to the Septuigant) 5, 22, 26
- Prophecy of Isaiah 35.1-10; the wilderness waters break out
- Acts of the Apostles 13.25-33; Paul allusion to St. John
- Matthew 3.1-6; call of John to repent
- Psalms 28, 41, 50
- Prophecy of Isaiah 1.16-20; the water that cleanses
- Acts of the Apostles 19.1-8; the baptism of John is not sufficient; you need also the baptism of the Holy Spirit
- Mark 1.1-8
- Psalms 73, 76, 90
- Prophecy of Isaiah 12.3-6; water and salvation
- Romans 6.3-11; the transformation that occurs in baptism and the participation in Jesus' death and resurrection
- Mark 1.9-11; account of Jesus' baptism
- Psalms 92, 113, 85
- Prophecy of Isaiah 49.8-15; water again, this time being a source of guiding the people
- Titus 2.11-14; 3.4-7; speaks of baptism as part of the start and entrance into faith and its attributes
- Luke 3.1-18; context and time of John's preaching
- Psalms 102, 145
Vespers of Theophany (said on the eve of Theophany, a vigil)
- Genesis 1.1-13; Spirit of God over the waters
- Exodus 14.15-18, 21-23, 27-29; Moses splitting the red sea
- Exodus 15.22-16.1; sweetening of the bitter water by Moses who casts into it a tree
- 4 Kings 2.6-14; Elijah divides the waters of the Jordan with his mantle and crosses it, and Elisha repeating it
- 4 Kings 5.9-14; Neeman washes 7 times in the Jordan and his leprosy leaves him
- Prophecy of Isaiah 1.16-20; the water that cleanses (already read in 3rd hour)
- Genesis 32.1-10; Jacob passing over the Jordan with his staff
- Exodus 2.5-10; Taking up of Moses by Pharaoh's daughter from the Nile
- Judges 6.36-40; Gideon, the fleece and the test of dew
- Kings 18.30-39; Elias builds an altar and wets it three times then fire from heaven comes down and consumes it
- Kings 2.19-22; Elisha casts salt upon the waters that were carrying sterility and death and makes them healthy
- Prophecy of Isaiah 49.8-15; Water again, this time being a source of guiding the people (read already in the 9th hour)
Liturgy of Eve of Theophany (said on the eve of Theophany, a vigil)
- 1 Corinthians 9.19-27; "Though I be free from all men. . .to them that are under the law, (I became) as under the law." This saying can be applied to our Lord who submitted to baptism without needing to.
- Luke 3.1-18; John and his message
Liturgy of Theophany
- Titus 2.11-14; 3.4-7; from 9th hour
- Matthew 3.13-17; Jesus baptism and the Father's voice and the descent of the dove
Customs and Traditions
On January 5, Royal Hours, a Vesperal Liturgy with Great Blessing of waters (less one of the priestly prayers) are celebrated. The water is not taken home, and it is a strict fast day. We read the following passages:
- Prophecy of Isaiah 35.1-10; read from 3rd
- Prophecy of Isaiah 55.1-13; "Ye that thirst, come to the waters
- Prophecy of Isaiah 12.3-6; read from 6th
- 1 Corinthians 10.1-4; "Brethren, I would not have you ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, an all passed through the sea, and all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all did eat the same spiritual food; all did drink the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ."
- Mark 1.9-11; from 6th hour
In addition, there are three priestly prayers, one which is said silently. There are many allusions to the Old Testament (Red Sea, Jordan), an entreaty that God sanctify the waters. The priest traces the water with his hand in the form of a cross, then plunges a cross three times into the water, raising it up after each time. This offers allusion to Jesus' baptism in the Jordan.
On January 6, we celebrate Orthros and Liturgy with the Great Blessing of the waters, and the water is distributed to the people. This water is also used for house blessing, and some of it is saved for the rest of the year. Sometimes this is what people are given instead of Eucharist. It is a day of baptisms, blessing of the water, and it lends to house blessings. For some there is a small blessing, then a tossing out of the cross into a body of water. Then people get into the water after the blessing. Rather than fasting, it is suspended. The day is a feasting day, a time of rejoicing.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas
These notes rely heavily upon the work of An Eastern Monk in "The Year of Grace of the Lord," St. Vladimir Press, pp. 77-85, 2001.
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