Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:6-13)
The Feast of Theophany commemorates the baptism of Christ but is really a celebration of God’s life-giving presence in the cosmos. A number of the Old Testament lessons and prophecies read as Scripture for the Feast (like the one above) make references to the desert and to the blossoming of life. In the popular mind, the desert is a barren wasteland where life barely survives, forget thinking it thrives (I repeat this is in the popular imagination, as I’m sure scientists who focus on the desert ecosystem would be eager to point out there is plenty of life in the desert). Scripture brings together the stark life-threatening nature of the desert (an inhospitable place for humans in general) with the life-giving nature of God. Life in the desert is a good image of the miraculousness of God’s ways in bringing life into existence and maintaining it. The desert is a threat to life, and life thriving there is more miracle than natural (the point Scripture is making). Maintaining life in the desert requires some life-giving miracle. A blossoming desert is a sign of God’s direct intervention into creation. The Feast of Theophany – Christ’s presence in the desert and the spiritual nature of baptism – is a celebration of the divine grace, miracle and power required for there to be life on earth. Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim says of theophany:
“… it is in the theophany that ‘God’s connection with the world can be most clearly observed.’ Here God is manifested within the life of the world in a way that is highly specific, articulate, tangible, formful, and revealing of a divine vulnerability. . . . God’s Word is thereby embodied, made visible; enabling a knowing, a becoming, a convincing, and a living that would not otherwise be possible.” (THE SUFFERING OF GOD, p 79)
St Ephrem the Syrian poetically writes about Christ’s baptism and theophany which in Orthodoxy are closely related to His Nativity, and in fact at one time in Church history were celebrated together as one theological Feast rather than two events separated by (30 years of) history:
“Mary’s lap astonishes me that it sufficed for You, my Lord, and embraced You.
The entire creation was [too] small to hide Your majesty.
Earth and heaven were [too] narrow to be like laps
to hide Your divinity. [Too] small for You is the earth’s lap,
but large [enough] for you is Mary’s lap. He dwelt in a lap, and He healed by the hem [of His garment] (Matt 9:20-22).
He [was] wrapped [in] swaddling clothes in baseness, but they offered Him gifts (Luke 2:7).
He put on the garments of youth, and helps emerged from them.
He put on the water of baptism, and rays flashed out from it (Mark 1:9-11).
He put on linen garments in death (Mark 15:46), and triumphs were shown by them.
With His humiliations [came] His exaltations. Blessed is He Who joins His glory to His suffering!
All these are changes that the Compassionate One shed and put on when He contrived to put on Adam the glory that he had shed.
He wrapped swaddling clothes with his leaves and put on garments instead of his skins (Gen 3:7).
He was baptized for [Adam’s] wrongdoing and embalmed for his death.
He rose and raised him up in glory. Blessed is He Who came down, put on [a body] and ascended!
Since Your birth sufficed for the sons of Adam as [for] Adam,
O Great One Who became a babe, by Your birth again You begot me.
O Pure One Who was baptized, let Your washing wash us of impurity.
O Living One Who was embalmed, let us obtain life by Your death.
I will thank You entirely in Him Who fills all. Glory to You entirely from all of us!”
(HYMNS, p 190)