The hymns of the Orthodox Church focused on the Theophany of our Lord reveal the theological depths contained within the Feast. Though even on the surface the events themselves hint at a richness of theology and biblical imagery, the Feast opens the eyes of our hearts and souls to God’s revelation in the world. One of the Pre-feast hymns says:
Prepare, Zebulon, Adorn Yourself, O Nephtali!
Stop your flow, River Jordan: Receive the Master with Joy!
Rejoice with Eve, O Adam, and do not hide as of old in Paradise,
For the One who beheld you naked has now appeared to enrobe you anew.
Christ has come, willing to renew all of Creation!
The hymn refers to the events described in Genesis 3:7-11 in which Adam and Eve following their disobeying God find themselves naked in God’s presence. Many ancient Jewish and Christian commentators believed the nakedness was not natural to the humans but rather left them vulnerable and ashamed because they had lost the glorious garments they were given by God to wear in God’s presence in paradise. Sin had stripped them of their glorious, God-given garments. We see this sentiment expressed by St. Paul for whom salvation consists not of shedding ourselves of our bodies or of the clothes we wear, but rather of putting on additional garments:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)
When God sought Adam, fallen in sin and naked, in Genesis 3 Adam was afraid of God. Now, the Theophany hymn says God is still looking for us, but we need not be afraid any longer, for God comes to bestow on us the glorious garments in which God wishes to clothe us. At Christ’s baptism, God Himself appears naked, taking this shame upon Himself in order to restore us humans to our privileged position. And, when we are baptized we put on Christ, like a garment (Galatians 3:27).
You are the river of peace and valley of paradise, all-powerful Lord!
How can a river receive You naked, in its course,
Who mantled the heavens with clouds?
You shall strip the evil enemy naked,
clothing mankind with immortality!
The above hymn continues with the theme of nudity versus being clothed. Christ, God in the flesh, standing naked in a river is presented as defying logic even for the physical world. It simply doesn’t make sense. How can the invisible and ineffable God appear naked in a river? Because in becoming human, the incarnated God has a body. God clothed the skies with clouds, yet humbles Himself to stand naked in a river before humanity. The humility and love of God transcends understanding! The hymn says God will strip Satan of all power, and expose Satan as powerless. That same God clothes mortal humans in immortality. This is the mystery of God’s salvation and the very truth we celebrate in the Feasts of the Church.
The Feast of Christ’s birth has passed. It shone more brightly than the sun!
The day of His manifestation is on its way. That day will be even more radiant….
Christ wipes away the tears from every face. He comes to heal the diseases of souls.
He frees us from afflictions in the waters. He creates defeated man anew.
We sing and exalt Him throughout all ages!
The hymn expresses how everything that Christ did, from His conception in the Virgin’s womb to His resurrection, was done for our salvation. In His baptism, Christ is recreating humanity. It is not the crucifixion alone which saves us. We are saved by the very person of Christ. The incarnation begins human salvation. In the Orthodox Church we celebrate all of the saving acts of Christ and recognize that because He is God, each thing Christ did was done to restore humanity to its natural condition. Note also that in the Orthodox Church the Feast of Theophany is viewed as being a more glorious Feast than Christmas!
Creator of the hours and the years,
in Your loving kindness, you have come under time!
You shone forth timelessly from the all-unoriginate Father
and have come to wash away in the streams of the Jordan
the transgressions committed throughout all ages!
The hymns point out frequently the significance of Christ is that He is God incarnate. The God who created time and space enters into time and space in the person of Jesus Christ. The relativity of time takes on special significance in the theology of the incarnation! God exists outside of time with time having no meaning in relationship to God. And yet, God enters into time in order to raise mortal humanity to an eternal state. This is the mystical theology of Christianity proclaimed and celebrated in its Feasts. So in one of the hymns from Matins of Theophany proclaims:
The sea and cloud in which the people of Israel were once baptized
by the lawgiver Moses as they journeyed from Egypt,
prefigured the wonder of the baptism of God!
The sea was an image of the water and the cloud an image of the Spirit
by which we are initiated and cry aloud:
blessed are You, O God of our fathers!
In the events of Christ’s life which we celebrate in the Feasts of the Church are both hidden and revealed the meaning and purpose of all that the Old Testament describes. In reading the New Testament, we understand the significance of Old Testament events whose full purpose and meaning was hidden until being revealed in Christ. The Old Testament prefigures the New and is found in and revealed through the Gospel. The Gospel events give meaning to the Old Covenant, for those events are now revealed as foreshadowing the new.