Theophany: Jesus Cleanses the Jordan

“…our Lord Jesus Christ, who for all of us and for our salvation…” (common phrase in the festal prayers of the Church)


“…each thing that Jesus accomplished, no matter how apparently insignificant, had salvific effects. “Everything that Jesus does,” writes Jerome in his explanation of why the Gospel of Mark found it necessary to record the detail that Jesus rode on an ass when he entered Jerusalem, “is a sacrament. He is our salvation. For if the Apostle tells us, ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do all things in the name of the Lord’ [1 Corinthians 10:31], are not these much more our sacraments, when the Savior walks or eats or sleeps?”


As the Gospels themselves indicate, the dynamism or radiant energy possessed by Christ extended also to his clothing, which Hilary comments on apropos of the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Matthew 9:20-22: “The power abiding in his body added a health-giving quality to perishable things, and a divine efficacy even went as far as the fringes of his garments. For God was not divisible and able to be contained, as if he could be shut up in a body.” A striking instance of the energy that radiated from Christ, finally, is associated with his baptism in the Jordan River.


Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, so as to make them suitable in turn for cleansing those who would be baptized. We find this idea as early as the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch and frequently thereafter.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 83-84)



St. John the Forerunner

“Divine Matthew describes the Baptism in Jordan in this way: Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad Him, saying: “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” John recognizes Christ, but does not know of His plan of salvation.

There now unfolds a scene unique in human history: God competing in humility with man! John was baptizing sinners to repentance. However, the Sinless One, who had nothing of which to repent, came up to him and demanded baptism of him. John, stronger in spiritual power than all the sinful men around him, suddenly recognized in Christ One mightier than himself.”   (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 78)

Theophany 2018

St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the following poetry as he reflected on the meaning of the Feast of Theophany.  He focuses on part of the prayer of the Feast for the Blessing of Water in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and be present in it just as the Spirit was present at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

The Spirit descended from the heights

and sanctified the water as She hovered.

When John baptized Jesus

She left all others and settled on one,

but now She has come down and settled

upon all who are reborn in water of baptism.


Of all those that John baptized

the Spirit dwelt on one alone,

but now She has flown down

to dwell upon many.

Rushing to meet the Foremost who went up first from the Jordan,

She embraced him and dwelt upon Him.

It is a wonder that the Purifier of all

should have gone down to the water to be baptized.

The seas declared that river blessed,

in which You, Lord, were baptized.

The waters, too, that are above the heavens

were envious that they had not been held worthy to wash You.

Thus we pray to make the water that of Jordan.

It is a wonder, Lord, now as well

that, though the springs are full of water,

only the baptismal font

can wash clean:

the seas may be mighty with all their water,

but they have not the power to wash.

(“Hymns on Epiphany,” Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 249-250)


The River Jordan Meets Its Creator

The River Jordan in the scriptures plays a mystical role in the history of Israel.  It is a boundary which Israel must cross over to reach their physical and spiritual destination.  For example, in Joshua 3-5, Israel coming to the end of its 40 year desert sojourn comes against this boundary which it crosses only with God miraculously parting the waters.  There are many lessons for Israel to learn at the Jordan:  1) Israel must pass through this particular way and no other – it is how they will know they are on the right path (3:4).  Every single one of God’s people has to pass through the Jordan (3:17).  2)  God is with Joshua (3:7).  3)  That they might hear God’s voice (3:9).  4)  That they may know God is there with them – in their midst (3:10).  5)  God Himself will rest in the River Jordan and its waters will stop their normal and natural flowing 3:13).  6)  The experience of the Israelites at Jordan was to be a witness to all the world about God (4:24).  The event was not for Israel’s benefit alone.  7) This was not only a total covenant renewal for all of Israel but a regeneration of Israel, a new birth (5:6-7).

These lessons are paralleled and fulfilled in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.  Jesus insists with John that it is necessary for the baptism to happen (Matthew 3:15).  God is with Jesus and the voice of God is heard at Christ’s baptism.  God is present with them – standing in the Jordan is God incarnate.  John is Christ’s witness, but all Christians witness to the world of the transforming power of baptism.  Baptism is part of the new covenant relationship with God which is offered to the entire world.

The events of Joshua and the people of God crossing the Jordan was memorialized in Psalm 114 –

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Israel’s crossing the Jordan is frequently mentioned in the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church, and Psalm 114 is referenced extensively in the liturgical hymns of the Feast.  In the Feast, the event of the Ark of the Covenant touching the waters of the Jordan and changing them/ their course is a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into the Jordan for His own baptism.  Christ too changes not only the natural flow/purpose of the Jordan but reveals its spiritual significance for the salvation of the world.   The events of Joshua 3-5 are a prophetic foreshadowing of the events of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan.  One of the pre-Feast hymns says:

Why do you stop the flow of your waters, O Jordan?
Why do you make your streams flow back?
Why do you not follow your natural course?
“I cannot bear the fire which consumes me,” it said.
“I am amazed and shudder at the extreme condescension.
I have not learned to wash the pure or cleanse the sinless.
I have learned only to wash the filthy garment.
Now Christ, Who is baptized in me,
teaches me to burn the thorns of sin.
And John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me.
He cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin of the world.’”
Let us the faithful cry to Him:
“O God, Who shone forth for our salvation, glory to You!”

In the hymn the River Jordan is anthropomorphized, so it can speak and describe its encounter with the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ when He stepped into the waters to be baptized by John the Forerunner.  The Jordan experiences Christ as fire which is transforming the River.    It is Christ who imparts to the river waters the power to destroy sin.  In meeting its Creator, Jesus, the Jordan realizes the event of the incarnation.  God the Creator is present in Christ, yet the Jordan is not destroyed/burned up by this encounter because God is incarnate.  God’s divinity is united to and contained by Christ’s humanity.  This has purified human flesh and human nature.   So in Christ the Jordan has no one to clean or to wash their garment, but rather is experiencing a new cleansing itself, along with all creation.


2017 Theophany (PDF)

I have gathered all the 2017 posts related to the Feast of Theophany into one PDF, for those who prefer this format for reading the posts.  You can find the document at Theophany 2017 (PDF).

Each year I gather related blogs into a PDF  for the Theophany, Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.



Christ God at Theophany

Continuing to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Baptism and the Theophany of the Holy Trinity.   Below are two hymns from the Vespers of the Feast of Theophany.  The first introduces the sense of coverings or clothing – things that Christ puts on.  As God, Christ clothes Himself with light as with a garment (Psalm 104:2).  At Vespers we sing in the prokeimenon that the Lord clothes Himself with majesty.  Some in Orthodoxy takes this as a reference to the incarnation in which God clothes Himself with a human body.  The human body was originally created for glory, and Adam and Eve were thought to where glorious garments in Paradise before the Fall.  After the fall, they put on “garments of skin” which God gave them (Genesis 3:21).  Christ takes on Himself that garment and transfigures and transforms it back into majesty and glory.  Just by putting on human nature, Christ restores it to majesty – this is the saving power of the incarnation.

In the hymn below, Christ also covers Himself with the water of the Jordan – as God He is invisible and ineffable.  He stands naked in the river, yet the waters cover Him.  The imagery is one of mystery – in Christ, the human body hides God.  The river is covering the body to reveal God!   In the incarnation He allows Himself to be visible.  Since we were created in His image and likeness, we have some sense of Christ in each human being.  In the incarnation we see the type in whose image we are made.  But being God, even incarnate, He is not guilty of sin.   God made Christ to be sin, even though He never commits sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Being God, being pure and holy, it is Christ who gives to baptism the power to take away sin and to regenerate every human being.

He who covers Himself with Light as with a garment

Has granted for our sake to become as we are.

Today He is covered by the streams of the Jordan,

Though He has no need to be cleansed by them:

But through the cleansing that He Himself receives

Wonder! He bestows regeneration on us!

He refashions without shattering,

And without fire, He casts anew,

And He saves those who are enlightened in Him,

Christ our God, the Savior of our souls.

I love the imagery of Christ regenerating, refashioning and recreating us – without shattering or fire.  He refashions by balm not burning.  He recreates by degree not destroying.  He edifies by design not demolishing.

Christ does not destroy His creatures but finds a way to renew and refashion us from within, without having to melt us down or destroy us because we are too evil. He renews the goodness innate in our being, which He bestowed on each of us at our conception – His image!   Christ has become incarnate because humans are capable of being redeemed and created anew.  Christ makes all things new, not all new things (Revelation 21:5).  God loves us because He did not create junk.  God has the eyes to see the goodness in us, savable and redeemable, capable of restoration and renewal.   God does not need to annihilate creation or the human body in order to save it.  The hymns of the Orthodox Church often marvel that in the incarnation divinity does not destroy humanity.  The Virgin Mary is not destroyed by having God incarnate in her womb, just as Moses saw a bush being burned yet not consumed.  God is fire, yet one that does not destroy but renews.  God saves the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, an image of hell, where the fire becomes like dew to those whom God loves.   The divine-human fusion of the incarnation and theosis is God’s method of salvation.

The incarnation of God in Christ is recognized and worshiped by all parts of creation, as we see in the hymn below.

Lord, in Your desire to fulfill what you appointed from eternity,

You have received ministers from all the creation at this, Your mystery:

Gabriel from among the angels,

The Virgin from among humans,

The star from the heavens,

and Jordan from the waters;

And in its stream You have washed away the transgression of the world.

O Savior, glory to You!

Angels, humans, heaven and earth are all united in Christ, and each finds the representative to serve Him as is clear in the icons of Theophany.


The River Jordan and Paradise

The prayers for the Great Blessing of water entreat God to make the blessing of the Jordan be present in the water in the church font.  In the Vespers service for Theophany, 13 Old Testament Readings are proclaimed.  Four of these reading make reference to the River Jordan:

Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17 (the ark causes the Jordan to stop flowing, so Israel can cross to the promised land on dry ground);

4[2] Kings 2:6-14 (Elisha parts the Jordan after receiving Elijah’s mantle when he ascended into heaven);

4[2] Kings 5:9-14 (Naaman is cured by washing three times in the Jordan);

Genesis 32:1-10 (Jacob reminds God that he became a rich man after crossing the Jordan).

The Jordan River has a virtual mythical quality for Israel, and takes on a mystical purpose and meaning.  Crossing the Jordan is associated with the saving acts of God on earth – with movement that brings one closer to God and God’s Kingdom.   St. Gregory the Theologian reflects on the mystical meaning of the Jordan River.

St. Gregory then comes back to the Jordan:

‘Alone among all rivers, the Jordan received the first-fruits of sanctification and blessing, and has shed the grace of baptism over the whole world, as from a source. And these things are signs of that regeneration which is effected by Baptism’.

This is a very striking definition of a type, that it is an act truly accomplished, and signifying some future action. St Gregory then alludes to the Jordan in its relation to Paradise:

‘The Jordan is glorified because it regenerates men and makes them fit for God’s Paradise’.”

(Jean Danielou, From Shadows to Reality,p 275)

The Jordan is involved in several epiphanies of God, but in Christ’s baptism there is the Theophany of the Holy Trinity. It is Christ’s baptism that gives meaning and power to all baptisms done in Christ.  The Jordan has a mystical quality that is transferred to all who participate in it.


The Saving Effects of Theophany

A hymn from the Great Blessing of the Water offers us this understanding of the Feast of Theophany.

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon the waters.
Today the Sun that never sets has risen and the world is filled with
splendor by the light of the Lord.

Today the moon shines upon the world with the brightness of its rays.
Today the glittering stars make the earth fair with the radiance of their shining.
Today the clouds drop down upon mankind the dew of righteousness
from on high.
Today the Uncreated of his own will accepts the laying on of hands from his own creature.

Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the
coming of the Lord.
Today transgressions of men are washed away by the waters of the
Today the blinding mist of the world is dispersed by the Epiphany of
our God.
Today things above keep feast with things below, and things below
commune with things above.

Today earth and sea share in the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness.
At thine Epiphany the whole creation sang thy praises.

(The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 88)



Theophany (2016)

OSBIn the notes from The Orthodox Study Bible, we learn about the Feast of Theophany.

“The word ‘theophany‘ derives from the Greek words theos (‘God’), and phainesthai (‘to show forth, appear’). Hence, a theophany is an appearance or manifestation of God. While types of Christ in the Old Testament prefigure His coming in the flesh, theophanies are recognized by the Church as being actual appearances of the pre-incarnate Son and Word of God. How this happens remains a mystery. But because the Son of God took on human nature in the fullness of time, each theophany directly prefigures Christ’s Incarnation. St. John of Damascus wrote, ‘No one saw the divine nature, but rather the image and figure of what was yet to come. For the invisible Son and Word of God was to become truly Man.’

THREE THEOPHANIES OF CHRIST     An often cited theophany of Christ occurs in the visit of the ‘three men’ to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1–16: ‘Then God appeared to him at the oak of Mamre’ (v. 1). Though three men are there, Abraham addresses them in the singular, ‘Lord.’ He responds in the singular (vv. 9–15). As St. Ephraim the Syrian says, ‘Therefore the Lord . . . now appeared to Abraham clearly in one of the three.’ The three are generally considered to be Christ the Lord, along with two attending angels. At Genesis 32:25–31, Christ is the ‘man’ who wrestles with Jacob, after which Jacob says, ‘I saw God face to face’ (v. 30). St. Cyril of Jerusalem asks the Jews concerning these theophanies to Abraham and Jacob, ‘What strange thing do we announce in saying that God was made Man, when you yourselves say that Abraham received the Lord as a guest? What strange thing do we announce, when Jacob says, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’? The Lord, who ate with Abraham, also ate with us.’ In the Book of Daniel, a heathen king bears witness to another theophany of Christ. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon peers into the fiery furnace, upon seeing a ‘fourth man’ he exclaims, ‘The vision of the fourth is like the Son of God’ (Dan 3:92).

OTHER APPEARANCES OF GOD     At times Christ appears as ‘the Angel of the Lord’ or ‘the Angel of God.’ At Exodus 3:1—4:17, ‘the Angel of the Lord’ appears to Moses in the burning bush and identifies Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 3:6, 15, 16; 4:5). He also says that His name is ‘I AM HE WHO IS’ (Ex 3:14), which in Greek is represented by the three letters placed around Christ’s head in the holy icons. St. Ambrose of Milan observes, ‘Christ therefore is, and always is; for He who is, always is. And Christ always is, of whom Moses says, “He that is has sent me.”’”  (Kindle Loc. 65449-71)



Revealing Christ at Theophany

All the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church celebrate the incarnation of God.  thus they affirm the Trinitarian Theology of ancient Christianity, and contemplate the mystery which God revealed in Jesus Christ.  We can look at three hymns from Matins of the Prefeast of Theophany   (January 2) –

You are a rushing torrent, who fashioned the sea and the wellsprings.

How do You come to the waters?

Why do you seek cleansing?

For You are the washing and purification

of those who sing hymns to You, O Christ, forever!

The above hymn, addressed to Christ, accepts the truth proclaimed in the Nicene Creed that all things were made by Christ at creation as recorded in Genesis 1.  The hymn marvels that the One who created water, the sea, wellsprings, now is immersed in water.  The hymn ponders the incongruity and divine mystery of the Holy, Pure and Sinless God accepting baptism which was associated with the cleansing away of sin.  The incarnation, indeed, turns creation upside down!


Seeking to dry up the streams of the enemy’s malice,

to drain the sea of the passions

and to pour out cleansing and remission upon the faithful, Master,

You come to be baptized in the streams of the Jordan.

The second hymn uses metaphorical imagery to further contemplate the full meaning of the Baptism of Christ.  Christ is immersed in the waters of the Jordan, but now the streams of water are no longer merely part of material creation.  They now are metaphorically transformed into “the enemy’s malice” as well as “the sea of passions.”  God became human in Christ in order to overcome the evil of Satan as well as human sin and passion.  The hymn reminds us that a literal reading of the text limits the meaning of the events and the power of God.  Whenever God interacts with creation, an entire new meaning and depth is added to the material world.  In Christ and in His every deed, heaven and earth are united together.  God and humanity have their proper relationship restored in Christ.

Creator of the hours and years,

in Your loving-kindness, You have come under time!

You shone forth timelessly from the unoriginate Father

and have come to wash away in the streams of the Jordan

the transgressions committed throughout all ages!

It is not only the material that is renewed in Christ – time also is transformed.  The space-time continuum mean energy and mass, space and time all belong to the same one reality – the created cosmos.  Christ heals and restores everything in the created order including time.  So the hymn marvels that the One who created time enters into time.  The Timeless One  enters into the present moment giving it eternal meaning.  Thus in the worship of the Orthodox Church we enter into the “eternal now” at every Feast and during every Liturgy.