“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicea in AD 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: ‘[God] was made man,’ said St. Athanasius, following St. Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God.’ But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis.’ This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person,’ which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.” (Boris Bobrinskoy, “God in Trinity,” The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 50)
Theophany is a feast celebrating God revealing Himself to us. The revelation though is a surprising mystery – for God is not a Him but a Trinity of Divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. At Theophany we hear the voice of the Father, are aware of the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, and see the Son who is Jesus the incarnate God baptized in the River Jordan. The Trinity is manifested at the Baptism of Christ.
“Even though it is by one single act of loving-kindness that the Trinity has saved our race, yet each of the blessed Persons in said to have contributed something of His own. It is the Father who is reconciled, the Son who reconciles, while the Holy Spirit is bestowed as a gift on those who have become friends. The Father has set us free, the Son was the ransom by which we are freed, but the Spirit is freedom, for Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Father has re-shaped us, by means of the Son we were re-shaped, but “it is the Spirit who gives life” (Jn. 6:63). The Trinity was foreshadowed even at the first creation. Then the Father created, and the Son was the hand for Him who created, but the Paraclete was the breath for Him who inbreathed the life.”
(The Life in Christ, p. 74)
The Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God. Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:
Christ, the Light that shone before the sun, was on earth in the flesh. In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion! Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity. For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone. Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection. For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die. Yest they saw as far as they could bear it. He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity: That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)
Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun. When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else. The Word of God is the Light of the world. Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being. He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made. He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity. The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity. They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.
He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples. In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image. Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection. (Vespers Hymn)
It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration. Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world. We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.
“One cannot say that Christianity is a religion. Christianity is a revelation of eternity and life. The angels rejoice greatly because God has revealed Himself mystically to His creature, man. Our human nature has become part of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and that is a great gift which we do not even appreciate; instead, we have cleaved to the things of this world. We have been given the opportunity to prepare ourselves for eternity, to vanquish evil, and to always be with our heavenly Father.”
(Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, p. 148)
The exalted Jesus participates in God’s unique sovereignty over all things.
At a very early stage, which is presupposed and reflected in all the New Testament writings, early Christians understood Jesus to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God in the highest heaven. There, seated with God on God’s throne, Jesus exercises or participates in God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos. This decisive step of understanding a human being to be participating now in the unique divine sovereignty over the cosmos was unprecedented. The principal angels and exalted patriarchs of Second Temple.
Jewish literature provide no precedent. It is this radical novelty which leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts. But, although a novelty, its meaning depends upon the Jewish monotheistic conceptual context in which the early Christians believed it. Because the unique sovereignty of God over all things was precisely one of the two major features which characterized the unique identity of God in distinction from all other reality, this confession of Jesus reigning on the divine throne was precisely a recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity, himself decisively distinguished, as God himself is, from any exalted heavenly servant of God.
(Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Kindle Location 302-309)
Of course, the Son of God did not consign Himself to a material body or mingle human deeds with divine ones on a whim. He did this, together with the miracles that He performed in the body, in order to obey the will of God. But the fact that He could organize and work divine purposes through a human body in a pure and marvelous manner shows that he created Himself as a man with a material body, and thus created all matter with the capacity for being filled and used to manifest His divine Person.
And He raised men through grace to become sons of His heavenly Father through the fact that He Himself was the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father. If there were no Triune God–a God who was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–He could not have done this. The raising of man from the prison of his nature is possible thanks to the fact that God exists in Trinity. (Dumitru Staniloae, The Holy Trinity, pp. 112-113)
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27)
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12) [emphases not in original texts]
In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in Jesus. The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity. The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation. They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life. All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation. One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:
THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,
UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,
IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.
HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;
HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:
REJOICE, PURE DOVE! REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!
MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!
The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis. It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity. It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”! The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden. The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin. The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine. Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.
“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me. For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)
“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)
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.
“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)
The Holy Spirit is Light and Life,
a living Fountain of spiritual gifts,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
all-knowing, upright and good–
He leads us and washes away our sins.
He is God, and He makes us gods;
He is Fire proceeding from Fire,
speaking and acting and distributing gifts.
Through Him all the Prophets, Martyrs and Apostles of God are crowned.
Strange account, strange and wonderful sight:
fire is divided for distributing gifts.