Orthodox festal hymns are rich in imagery. As such they reveal a great deal about what hymnographers in past centuries believed and thought about. This in turn reveals a rich theological heritage – Christians not shaped by modern concerns and controversies revealed how they saw the world in the poetry they composed.
Below are a few hymns from the Prefeast of Theophany which offer glimpses into the mind of our Christian fore-bearers. The first hymn hones in on the idea that the saving deeds of Christ benefit ALL of humanity, not just those who believe. There is indeed a universalism to the salvation offered to humanity in Jesus Christ. Orthodox festal hymns frequently proclaim that there is one God who is both creator and savior of everyone. Obviously, not everyone is interested in this salvation. [The emphasis in the text below is mine and not in the original.]
Receiving Him who came to be washed,
That He might wash away the sins of all,
John forbade Him, drawing back in fear:
“It is I who need to be baptized by You!
How can the friend stand in the Bridegroom’s place?
I am only a word from Your voice; a moon reflecting You, the sun,
Whom we exult throughout all ages!
I also find in the penultimate line an interesting scientific reference – the moon’s light is simply reflecting the sun’s light. The hymn writer is able to incorporate in a metaphor comparing John the Baptist to Jesus the fact that the moon is not the source of it’s own light. Some think that the ancients, being pre-modern and pre-scientific, held only superstitious beliefs, but they were interested in the material world and science as they understood it. Understanding the moon to be reflecting sunlight requires some abstract cosmology as the fact would have been beyond what the ancients could prove. The hymn shows that this concept of the moon reflecting sunlight was so well established to the hymn writer that he could refer to it in a metaphor and trust that his audience would know the reference.
In a similar vein, a Patristic text on Christ’s baptism, Tertullian references the primordial waters from which life emerged. Obviously his understanding of the primordial waters comes from the book of Genesis and not from evolutionary science, but he does accept a notion that from the inanimate sea, life came into existence.
In another hymn, we are reminded that the Holy Feast Days in the Church are instances of the Master’s hospitality – an image used on Holy Thursday referring to the Mystical Supper of Christ. We (all Christians and all who attend the Feasts are the invited guests of God! We aren’t the hosts of these Feasts, we are God’s guests, enjoying the Master’s hospitality which we are supposed to share with others. Sadly, when we think we own the Feasts or the sacraments, we lose our proper place at the heavenly Banquet.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11)
God is the Master who shows hospitality to all. As His invited guests, our task is to give Him thanksgiving and to share His abundant hospitality with others.
Come, O faithful,
Having enjoyed the Master’s hospitality:
The banquet of immortality
In the lowly manger,
Let us run to the Jordan,
There to see a strange mystery,
Revealing light from on high.
The above hymn has us being invited by the Master from one Feast (Christmas) to another (Theophany). We are the guests, and should be awed and humbled that God invites us to these Feasts honoring His Son! And we have unlimited grace and divine love to share with all of our neighbors and indeed with the entirety of humanity.
And in the Feast of Theophany we see a strange mystery. Mystery is the normal word for sacrament in Orthodox writings. The strange mystery is of course Christ’s baptism. For usually baptism is understood as the spiritual means to wash away sin, but now the sinless Christ is baptized and it is Christ who is sanctifying the waters rather than the reverse.
In Orthodox theology Christ took upon himself the sins of the world. This is an action of His entire life, not just the short time He was on the Cross. So, in His baptism, Christ carried not His sins but ours into the River Jordan. He drowns our sins in His baptism, or in another image, He buries our sins when He goes beneath the waters of the Jordan. Baptism is a symbolic burial and resurrection to life. Christ dies on the cross and resurrects to a new life, but His baptism already prefigures this. Every significant event in Christ’s life was done for our salvation. Theophany, Christ’s baptism is also accomplished foe our salvation, not His!
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
So the hymns of Theophany give frequent reference to Christ doing away with our sins, and use several different metaphors to make the point:
In the midst of those seeking baptism,
You stood, a man in essence, not imagination,
The only sinless One by nature,
For You came to bury mankind’s punishment
In the baptismal waters.
In Canticle 1 of the Eve of Theophany, we find this same idea of salvation referenced repeatedly:
Delivered from bitter bondage,
Israel crossed over the waters as if on dry land,
And seeing the enemy drowning,
They sang a song in gladness to God …
Christ now buries our sins in the waters…
Jesus Christ comes forth to drown the rivers of sin in the streams of Jordan…
The hymns see the Exodus event of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea as prefiguring Christ’s own baptism. The real enemy of the Jews and of all mankind is sin. The crossing of the Red Sea has eternal significance because the Egyptians are just the symbol of sin. It does little good to escape a tyrant if you are trapped in sin.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? ” (Matthew 16:24-26)
Finally, all of the hymns are based in the theological truth that Jesus is God incarnate. That is the whole basis for understanding every Gospel story and for celebrating every Christian Feast.
Once You clothed the shameful nakedness of our forefather Adam;
Now You are stripped naked of Your own will!
You covered the roof of heaven with waters;
Now You wrap Yourself in the streams of Jordan,
Only merciful Christ.
The above hymn accepts the idea that it was the pre-incarnate Christ who clothes the naked Adam and Eve after they had lost the original glorious garment God provided for them in Eden and were expelled from paradise. Now in His own baptism, Christ stands naked on earth in the Jordan River taking upon Himself the sins of Adam and Eve and all their descendants. Christ is baptized for our salvation – he takes our sins into the Jordan to have those sins washed away.
Christ, who in creating the world covered the heavens with water, now clothes His naked humanity in the streams of the Jordan to heal us all. He restores all of humanity to its natural potential, giving all of us the chance to once again submit our lives to God.