Theophany: The Feast of Lights
It is an unfortunate reality that, today, the feast of the Theophany is overshadowed by Christmas. As you probably know Theophany is the more ancient feast in the Orthodox Church and originally celebrated the entirety of the manifestation of God in the flesh, from the birth in Bethlehem to the baptism by John in the Jordan. When, in the fourth century and following, the Orthodox east began to keep Nativity as a separate feast, Theophany became focused on the baptism alone. This teasing out of the birth from the baptism into separate feasts was a sort of microcosm of the church’s whole liturgical vision in which different facets of the One Mystery of Christ became the many feasts and fasts of the church year. Thus did the Church sanctify time.
But back to Theophany. Today, since Christmas has become so popular even outside of the Church, with adults and children getting time off work, the commercialization of the feast, etc., Theophany gets neglected even by many in the Church. This is, quite honestly, a terrible loss, not simply because Theophany is the more ancient feast, but because it is too wondrous to be forgotten. In fact, one of the hymns for the prefeast says that Theophany is even more glorious than Christmas.
A key theme - perhaps the key theme - of Theophany is light. In fact, this feast was often called in earlier centuries the Feast of the Holy Lights, and a whole host of words and ideas gather around and shine forth from this central theme.
Christ comes into the world as the Light of the world to enlighten those who sit in darkness. How is this illumination accomplished? What does it mean? Primarily, as we hear again and again in the festal hymns, that in Christ, the eternal Son and Word of the Father, God the Holy Trinity is finally and really manifest and known. This, in fact, is what the term Theophany means: the manifestation of God, the living and true God, as opposed to all of the idols and false gods of the world. So long as humanity is in the thrall of these false gods we are in darkness, subject to lies about God and the gods, and about ourselves. Furthermore, the worship of false gods and idols does nothing to free us from our enslaving passions and, in fact, according to the fathers, actually entangles us in the passions even more deeply. Only in the manifestation of God in Christ do we come to the true knowledge of God which is enlightenment and illumination.
It is easy to see why this theme was so powerful for Christians in, for example, the fourth century when St Gregory the Theologian preached his rightfully famous oration on the Feast of the Holy Lights. So many of those who were coming into the Church at that time were coming from paganism and idolatry into the Church and the knowledge of the Holy Trinity. For them worshiping God in Christ meant stepping out of a shadowy realm of myth where the gods were often just as selfish and awful as men, only much more powerful, into the light of the God who is holy, just, merciful, and the friend of mankind. The living and true God, who was infinitely holy and awesome, was also infinitely humble and merciful. Not willing to see His creatures perish He came into the world as Himself man in order to raise up that which had fallen and to heal that which had grown sick and near to death. Theophany - the manifestation and shining forth of the true God - meant at last stepping into the light of God and of His Kingdom, a glory that would know no end, but only an eternal journey from glory to glory.
And what about us who, perhaps, have never known any other god except the true God? What can Theophany mean to us? Let me suggest two things.
First, we live in a world where the knowledge of the Holy Trinity is rapidly disappearing and where the west, at least, is becoming a secular wasteland. We who live here need Theophany to remember precisely who is the living and true God that we worship - the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit - not “the man upstairs”, the Supreme Being, or any other false god.
Secondly, we need Theophany because we need precisely to worship the living and true God. One of the symptoms of secularism is a so-called belief in God without the worship of God (which is, by the way, precisely what the demons have: belief without worship). Theophany is worship of the living and true God: of the Father who says, “This is my beloved Son”; the Son who in absolute humility submits to baptism so that we can be washed and saved; and the Spirit who descends on Him in the form of a dove.
May we be illumined by the feast!
With love in Christ,