Theophany: A Celebration of Holiness on the 12th Day of Christmas

Theophany: A Celebration of Holiness on the 12th Day of Christmas

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Snow is everywhere.
Not just in Boston, where my family and I live. If you are anywhere in eastern North America, chances are good that the blizzard hit you on Thursday, and that the landscape around you is white.
The first time I saw so much snow was sixteen years ago, when I traveled to Russia as an exchange student in early January. My first day of class fell on Theophany. I recall a professor showing us students TV broadcasts of outdoor blessings of water. The water, of course, was all ice and snow. Priests would bless liquid water at the bottom of cross-shaped holes cut in river or lake ice. After the blessing, people would swim in the frigid water.
“Today,” said my professor, “all the water in the world is holy. Even the water in pipes.”
And that water, I thought, in the form of snow, covers everything around me. Everything is blanketed in holiness.
A Season of Life
The feast of Theophany, sometimes called Epiphany, is twinned with Nativity to form the celebration of Christmas—of the Son of God’s coming in the flesh. Christ comes as a human at Nativity, and at Theophany God is revealed. God discloses himself made human in the person of Jesus Christ, and he even reveals that he is Trinity: when Jesus is baptized, the voice of the Father declares “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11) and the Holy spirit descends in the form of a dove, confirming “the truth of his word,” according to our hymns.
Since that cold day in Russia, I’ve celebrated Theophany in places without much ice– in California, for example; or Florida; or even East Africa. Sanctifying the water carries other meanings in places where safe drinking water is scarce, and where both dehydration and water-borne parasites are persistent hardships in many people’s lives. It’s meaningful in Lake Victoria fishing villages, for example, where people depend on the waters for safety and sustenance. It’s meaningful in northeastern Kenyan deserts, where I’ve helped priests scoop sand out of dry riverbeds to discover water seeping more than a foot below the surface.
I’m powerfully moved, though, by this cloak of frozen water.
“Thou hast clothed Thyself in water, O Christ,” St John of Damascus writes in his Canon for Theophany, “and so dost burn up the evil spoiler hidden in its depths.”
Today in Boston, the whole world around me is clothed, like the revealed Son of God, in water. Crystallized into snow, this blanket of water is white as a baptismal garment.
Christ’s baptism was, in a sense, the baptism of the world. As Christians, we understand baptism to be our initiation into the life of Christ, but Christ needed no initiation into his own life. Baptism is the remission of sins, but Christ had no sins. At Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit was always with the Son of God. In our baptism, we are clothed with Christ. In Christ’s baptism, he is clothed with us, and not just us humans. Christ is clothed in all creation. When the waters cover him, he covers the entire world. So that white shroud over my neighborhood today—and perhaps yours as well—is a baptismal shroud. It is the same water that our Lord accepts, so as to be everything that we are. It is the same water into which the voice of the Father declares his pleasure at seeing the Son clothed in our flesh and wrapped in our world. It is the same water upon which the Holy Spirit descends, blanketing us with his grace.
“Today,” prays the priest at the blessing of the waters, “the waters of the Jordan are changed to healing by the presence of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams.”
Today is special on the calendar. It’s Theophany! But the “today” of our prayers is not a calendar date. It’s the timeless truth of the eternal, triune God made present in our midst. Every day, in other words, is “today.”
Today, the world is holy.

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James Hargrave

James Hargrave is a stay-at-home dad in Abbotsford, British Columbia.