Theophany (2023) 


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

At the Feast of Theophany, we bless water and through the many festal scriptural readings we see the role water has played in God’s plan for the world. Water represents the chaos which God tames and brings to order in the beginning showing His power over nature. It is a sign of life and is necessary for life to exist. Water represents boundaries and the difficulties and dangers in crossing them (for example the Red Sea or the River Jordan). Water can be threatening, as in floods or a tempestuous sea. Water also represents cleansing, physical and spiritual. Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou traces the connection between the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation, with Noah’s dove which hovered over the flood waters and then with the Holy Spirit descending on Christ in the River Jordan at His baptism. Danielou gives us a sense of the spiritual role of water in the bible especially as related to Christ’s own baptism at Theophany as well as the baptism of each of us:


This tradition appears in the De Baptismo of Tertullian … : ‘As the dove was sent forth from the Ark after the Flood, the world’s baptism so to speak, purifying it from all iniquity, and returning with an olive branch, a sign even among the gentiles of peace, announced peace upon earth: in the same way, but on a more spiritual level, the dove of the Holy Spirit came down upon earth, that is upon our flesh when it comes forth from the font after [the washing away of] its former sins, bringing the Peace of God, coming forth from the heavens where is the church prefigured by the Ark’ (De Baptismo, 8: P. L. I, 1200 B). The outstanding fact in this typology is the symbolism of the dove, which also puts us on the track of its origin. In the preceding passage Tertullian speaks of Christ’s Baptism ‘in which the Holy Spirit came down on the Lord in the form of a dove, resting on the waters of Baptism, and so recognizing his ancient abiding place’ (De Baptismo, 8).


We meet here another typological vein and yet one also based on the typology of the Old Testament. The dove which descended upon Christ at his Baptism, while it may be an illusion to the Spirit of God hovering over the primeval waters (Genesis 1:2), seems to be also an illusion to the dove of the ark. Patristic tradition has, then, very rightly seen in the flood a type of Christ’s Baptism, wherein he appeared as the new Noah on whom the Holy Spirit descends to reveal the reconciliation of God and man. We find this in St Cyril of Jerusalem: ‘There are some who say that as salvation came in the time of Noah through wood and water, with the beginning of a new creation, and the return of the dove in the evening bearing the olive branch, so, they say, did the Holy Spirit come down on the true Noah, the author of the new creation when the spiritual dove came down upon him at his Baptism to show that he it is who grants salvation by the wood of the cross to those who believe, and who gave in the evening salvation to the whole world’ (P.G. XXXIII, 982). This passage is very characteristic of St Cyril of Jerusalem who labors to find in the events of the Old Testament types of the life of Christ. But what particularly concerns us here is that he establishes the chain of events between the Flood and Baptism. The flood is a type of Christ’s Baptism, which is in its turn a type of the Baptism of each individual Christian, so much so that the dove of the flood episode prefigures the descent of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s Baptism.  (FROM SHADOWS TO REALITY, pp 97-98)


Many of the festal hymns make the connection between water in the Old Testament and the baptism of Christ. For example:

The sea and cloud in which the people of Israel once were 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!