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Theophany: The Opened Heavens

The feast of Theophany has several interconnected themes running like motifs through the Church’s hymns and iconography. Some of these are obvious, such as light, water, and, of course, the manifestation of God as the Holy Trinity (the word Theophany means “manifestation of God”). Another motif which might escape our notice, though, is the open heavens: "When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him....” (Matt. 3.16).

The term apocalyptic gets thrown around a lot these days. People use it to refer to everything from environmental issues to zombie movies, but the one thing they have in common when they use it is a reference to the destruction or end of the world as we know it, either literally or culturally.

Apocalyptic, though, had a very different meaning in the Jewish and Christian milieu in which it was born. There it meant the removing of the veil between heaven and earth in order to grant to a human being the vision of God on His throne, worshiped by hosts of angels, the only true God. In other words, an apocalypse meant the revelation of God. You can see, then, that like so many words and concepts the term apocalyptic has been used and abused and is now, in our culture, almost completely a secularized concept. We might even call modern ideas of the end of the world, rather ironically, godless apocalypses.

Now what does all of this have to do with Theophany? I hinted at it already: "When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him....” But as we said above, the opened heavens are what apocalypse is all about, the removal of the veil separating us and our world from the Kingdom of God. Only when this veil is removed are we allowed to see the truth about God - i.e. who God is and how God is - and, thus, about ourselves and our world - i.e. that we are, perhaps much to our surprise, not God, but creatures made by and belonging to God.

But if all of this illumines the meaning and connection between Theophany and apocalyptic, what does it have to do with the baptism of our Lord? Simply this: that in taking flesh and becoming man the Son of God has come to usher man into that life which lies behind the veil, the life with God in Paradise. Man - Adam - was exiled from Paradise through pride. The new Adam and the true Adam, Christ, regains Paradise for us through His humility. Lowering Himself - going down - into the waters of the Jordan He opens up the heavens for us. The mystery of His baptism is thus one with the Paschal mystery of His death, burial, and resurrection. And it is this mystery, this apocalypse, which is revealed to us not only at the end of time, but here and now, in the midst of time, at every Divine Liturgy, and in this feast of Theophany.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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