Theophany Icon Explained
Theophany, sometimes called Epiphany, is upon us (Богоявлення in Ukrainian, Θεοφάνεια in Greek). The sixth of January is the official date that the baptism of Christ is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not to be confused with the Western holiday also called Epiphany which is a celebration of the magi presenting the baby Christ with their gifts.
The word Theophany means “Revelation of God;” Theophany therefore marks the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God when Jesus was baptized. Those who witnessed heard the Father’s voice from Heaven, saw the Spirit descending upon Jesus, and could see Jesus in the flesh.
The symbolism of this icon is deep and rich. There is one particular part that we want to focus on at this time:
Jesus is naked, or nearly so.
Christ is purposely depicted as being naked (or almost naked) and looking good. But why is that significant?
All throughout the creation narrative in Genesis one, we see God creating and then saying it is “good.” Man and woman were created together in God’s image. They were both beautiful and naked, and God called it good. However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them clothes to wear. The glory of their beauty and nakedness became an object of shame. Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.
Now, enter Jesus Christ: he represents the second Adam (1 Cor 15). In shame and nakedness, Adam hid. Yet Christ comes in his majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him (and in the subsequent centuries, Christians were always baptized naked). He is baptized in the Jordan River, but it is really the Jordan that was baptized.
We see the beginning of a new creation in Theophany. Things are being set right. Christ has come not only to cleanse and restore mankind, but to adopt us as heirs into his Kingdom. And when we receive His glory, not only are we redeemed, but we draw up all of creation with us. That is why “creation groans” in eager expectation, awaiting the glorification of the children of God. (Rom 8)
A few other notes about the Icon:
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 waiting to attend and dress him after the baptism is over.
John the Baptist, while baptizing Jesus is either turned away or looking at the Spirit descending upon him. This signifies that Theophany is about elevating Jesus Christ. If this were an Olympic race, it would be as if the Old Testament (John the Baptist and all before him) were passing the baton to the New Testament (Jesus Christ and all of the saints).
There is an axe near John the Baptist, which reflects his warning that our lives must bear the fruit of the Spirit or else we will be removed.
Jesus is not submerged in the water, for creation was baptized in Him, not vice versa.
Lastly, the strange little creatures riding fish at the bottom represent the Jordan River and the Sea, both fleeing at the sight of something much bigger and greater than themselves entering the water. This again signifies that Christ baptized creation.
There are several hymns sung during this season, but the forefeast Troparion hymn confirms some of the things that are written about here: “O Adam, be glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as you did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He has appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ has appeared, for He truly wills to renew all creation.”
During this time of the year, a beautiful ceremony is carried out and holy water is prepared in each parish. Congregants are free to take the holy water home with them. A portion is kept and used by the church throughout the year.
Also, house blessings are completed during the subsequent weeks using the holy water prepared during the Feast of Theophany. Plan to have the priest perform a house blessing during the coming weeks, it is an honor and a privilege.
*A Mandorla is an ancient symbol and the most concise way to express Christ’s majesty, glory and divinity in holy icons. It is also true that the mandorla is used to reveal the glory which is beyond vision. This is why the mandorla is also found surrounding Jesus in Icons of the Ascension, and also surrounding the Holy Spirit which descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove at . In both these cases, the mandorla is not showing something which was seen directly, but represents the glory and majesty what was physically witnessed by the gathered crowds.