In the life of the Church we come to different festal seasons and our attention is directed to various elements and times in the life of the Lord and the life of the Church. After we celebrate the Nativity we soon come upon the liturgical commemoration of the feast of Theophany. For many of us this feast does not command as much of our attention as do the feasts of Nativity and Resurrection (Pascha). Yet in the liturgical life of the Coptic Orthodox Church (the Orthodox Church of Alexandria) we commemorate many more major feasts. The 7 major feasts of the Church are the Nativity, Theophany, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and the Annunciation. The feast days are divided up in this way so that we can glean some of the beautiful elements of every feast day and penetrate deeper into the mystery of Christ. Let us look here at what the Scriptures and the liturgical life, including the iconography of the Church, teach us about the feast of the Theophany.
To begin, we can look at the first ‘beginning’ as recorded in Genesis. We have looked at this in greater depth in Genesis: The book of Life but let us focus here on what we can be taught about the activity of The Spirit. First we see that the human being is formed ‘spiritual’ (i.e. filled with the Holy Spirit, as opposed to our modern definitions) from the beginning. The one who God wishes to form in His Image and after His Likeness is imbued with the Spirit. It is this connection which allows the human being to even fulfill this vocation,
“And God formed the man of dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” Genesis 2.7
St. Cyril of Alexandria will comment on this passage elucidating for us what is in this breath,
“No one, I think, rightly minded would suppose that the inbreathing which proceeded from the divine essence became the creature’s soul, but that after the creature was ensouled, having soul and body – then like a seal of His own nature the Creator impressed on it the Holy Spirit, that is, the breath of life, through which it was being moulded to the archetypal beauty, and was being perfected according to the image of the one who created it, being established for every kind of excellence, by virtue of the Spirit given to dwell in it.” St. Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 9, Chapter 1, on John 14:20.”
That human being, formed of the dust of the earth (cf. Genesis: The Book of Life), has the breath of life breathed into him. It is by this breath (wind or Spirit) that the human being becomes fully alive. The symbolism here is easily appreciated; the breath is the mark of life and here in Genesis it is not until the human being is ‘breathed into’ or ‘given the breath of’ The Holy Spirit that he becomes fully alive. God, the source of all things, is He upon whom each breath of ours depends. God as the supplier of the very breath of the human being, the animating breath, is depicted very clearly here. He supports us all in being and without Him there is truly no life in us. We see this same life-giving activity depicted in the very first line of the book of Genesis,
“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. However, the earth was unformed and chaotic. Darkness was over the deep and the Spirit of God moved over the water.” Genesis 1.1-2.
The Waters of Chaos
The waters, which in ancient symbolism represent chaos, are made to bring forth life because the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Shortly after we read this in the book of Genesis, the creation is brought into being by God. In the symbolic mind of the ancients, the waters are a place of chaos and unrest because they held the forces of darkness and of death. One can even notice this in the apocalypse of St. John where the new creation is described, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away; and there was no more sea (Rev 21.1).” This may not strike us as sensible today but one can understand this if they have been in a storm, sailing on the tumultuous waters and the many perils that come with it. Water houses the creatures of the deep and can strike with a force that no man could handle. We see this imagery occur in other ancient creation stories such as the Enuma Elish where Tiamat is the goddess of the waters and she represents chaos. She is even taken to have the form or shape of a dragon (something we will consider later). In the biblical text, it is the work and life-giving energy of the Spirit that moves the waters to bring forth life and gush forth in Eden (Gen 2.6). The biblical text is quick to point out to any ancient reader that there is no god of evil or chaotic waters who stands alongside of God. Rather the creative Spirit commands the waters to bring forth life. We see therefore that God is the One and the Only, the Life and there is none other besides Him. By the life-giving power of God, water is made life-giving and not chaotic or destructive. It is only sin and the falling away from Life that brings forth chaos and destruction.
If we turn back to the human being, we see this play out in the Genesis text on a small-scale. We read of Adam and Eve’s eating of the tree and thenceforth their departure from God the one and only true Life (cf. Genesis: The Book of Life and Death). Man, seeing himself naked as he truly is when no longer attached to Him Who supplies the Breath of Life, hears ‘dust you are and to dust you shall return (Gen 3.21)’. You, having come into being from nothing and only animated by the Life gifted to you, shall turn back to nothing having rejected this gift. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches,
“Man then is a rational creature, but composite, of soul that is and of this perishable and earthly flesh. And when it had been made by God, and was brought into being, not possessing incorruption and imperishableness as part of their nature (for these things pertain essentially to God Alone), it was sealed with the Spirit of Life, by participation with the Divinity gaining the good that is above nature (for He breathed, it says, into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul). But when he was being punished for his transgressions, then rightly hearing ‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return’, he was bared of the grace; the breath of life, that is the Spirit of Him Who says I am the Life, departed from the earthy body and the creature falls into death.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John Book 1. Commentary on John 1:14.
The Spirit – The Garment of Light
The human being is bared of the grace of The Spirit, of the Spirit that gives life and thus hears, ‘Dust you are and to dust you shall return’. For St. Cyril, these two things are synonymous or at least consequent upon each other. Moreover, we see Adam and Eve perceiving their nakedness after the committing of their sin. In other words we could say that in their (bare) nakedness they are bared (made naked) of the grace of the Spirit. Once the covering of the Spirit is taken away, or rather is rejected, there is nothing left and they are found naked. St. Ephrem the Syrian discusses symbolic imagery of Adam and Eve’s garments of light, a covering of the Spirit, that was stripped away by their sin, their willful departure from the Life with God. Subsequently they are covered with the garments of skin. These garments represent the dead animals whose lives would be given up to become the covering of our forebears. What can this speak of other than the life that is already, in a sense, dead and surrounded by deadness in the imagery of the garments of a dead animal hide used to cover them. St. Ephrem says clearly,
“Were these garments from the skins of animals or were they created like the thistles and thorns that were created after the other works of creation had been completed? Because it was said that the Lord made… and clothed them, it seems most likely that when their hands were placed over their leaves they found themselves clothed in garments of skin. Why would beasts have been killed in their presence? Perhaps, it was so that by the animal’s flesh Adam and Eve might nourish their own persons, and that with the skins they might cover their nakedness, and also so that by the death [of the animals] Adam and Eve might see the death of their own bodies.” St. Ephrem the Syrian on Genesis, Chapter II, Tract 33.
In the dead animal hide which now shelters them from the cold and heat of the day, Adam and Eve (and their progeny) will see, and come to know themselves, death. In this imagery it is not only the protagonists, Adam and Eve, who are educated about the death they have undergone but also the reader who is made aware of their own mortality.
The Spurning of The Spirit and The Flood
The departure of the Spirit and the deadness which comes upon the human being is also played out in its cosmic consequences when human sin becomes widespread. By the cooperation (lit. working together) with the Spirit, humanity has the hand of death stayed because the Spirit is Life. Yet, this death becomes an imminent reality when the Spirit is rejected. Just as the Spirit had made the waters life-giving in the beginning, so we see the departure of the Spirit as bringing the destructive force of chaos upon the human being. In the first few chapters of Genesis we have the first murder and then the spreading of sin, and thereby death. This continues until we read something which ought to strike us as terrifying,
“The Lord God said: My Spirit shall certainly not remain among these men for ever, because they are flesh”. Gen 6.4.
Shortly after we read this comes the announcement that there will come a flood which will mark the destruction of the race which has shunned the Life of The Spirit. It is directly after this that we read the story of the flood and that one man, Noah, who was willing to be a co-worker (synergoi) with God; a synergoi who would become a forefather of a new humanity. The waters of chaos come and flood the earth upon the departure of the Spirit. Water, bereft of the activity of the Spirit, is shown in Genesis to be a force of destruction. Then we find an interesting text when we come to the end of the flood and Noah being able to disembark for dry land,
And The Spirit Brooded Over the Waters
“And God remembered Noah and all the wild beasts and all the cattle and all the birds and all the reptiles that creep, as many as were with him in the ark and God brought a wind (Pneuma) upon the earth and the water stayed.” Genesis 8.1
That which stays the waters, which brings life back out of the destruction, is the Spirit (the wind) that once more hovers over the waters as it had in the beginning (cf. Gen 1.2). Noah’s next action is to investigate as to whether the waters have subsided and if he and his family can exit the ark safely. Next comes another passage which we may not immediately take notice of,
“And it came to pass after forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. And he sent forth a raven; and it went forth and returned not until the water was dried from off the earth.” Genesis 8.6-7
Noah sends out a raven which does not return to him. The raven, being a scavenger, feeds on the body of dead animals and can be taken to represent death and decay. The raven released from the ark is a symbolic depiction of death departing from among those of the ark. In the Orthodox Church this understanding is intuitive; it is in the waters of baptism that we are destroyed and born anew with death being destroyed or cast off. It is only with the putting away of death that we can arise to life anew through our own baptism, making the destructive force of water also a life-giving one. We certainly see intimations of this with Noah and the sending away of the raven which does not return to the ark. The casting out of the raven happens along with the coming of the Spirit (pneuma) upon the waters as we have just read. However, when Noah sends out a dove something very different happens,
“And he sent a dove after it to see if the water had ceased from off the earth. And the dove, not having found rest for her feet, returned to him into the ark because the water was on all the face of the earth, and he stretched out his hand and took her, and brought her to himself into the ark. And having waited yet seven other days, he again sent forth the dove from the ark. And the dove returned to him in the evening, and had a leaf of olive, a sprig in her mouth; and Noah knew that the water had ceased from off the earth. And having waited yet seven other days, he again sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him again any more.” Genesis 8.8-12
The Return of The Spirit
The dove returns with an olive branch. The olive branch calls our mind to oil, with which anointing is performed to signify someone as chosen and sanctified to God. This
immediately calls our mind to the anointing of the prophets and Kings of the Old Testament, but also to the Lord Jesus Christ whose name is literally Jesus ‘The anointed’ (Christos). The dove also calls our mind to the Gospel narratives where Christ has the Spirit alight upon Him in the form of a dove. St. Cyril of Alexandria draws out this imagery for us where he comments on the words of the Lord ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me; therefore He has anointed Me: He has sent Me to preach the Gospel to the poor (Luke 4.18),’
“And so also in the Jordan It came upon Me in the form of a dove, not because It was not in Me, but for the reason for which He anointed Me. And what was the reason for which He chose to be anointed? It was our being destitute of the Spirit by that denunciation of old, “My Spirit shall not abide in these men, because they are flesh.” These words the incarnate Word of God speaks: for being very God of very God the Father, and having become for our sakes man without undergoing change, with us He is anointed with the oil of gladness, the Spirit having descended upon Him at the Jordan in the form of a dove. For in old-time both kings and priests were anointed symbolically, gaining thereby a certain measure of sanctification: but He Who for our sakes became incarnate, was anointed with the spiritual oil of sanctification, and the actual descent of the Spirit, receiving It not for Himself, but for us. For inasmuch as the Spirit had taken its flight, and not made His abode in us because of our being flesh, the earth was full of grief, being deprived of the participation of God.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 12, The homily on Luke 4.18
The Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the Jordan, for St. Cyril this calls to mind the anointing (related to the olive branch return to Noah), which Christ undergoes that the blessing may come to all of us. Much as Noah has the dove alight upon him so Christ also has the Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove. Whereas we take after the pattern of Noah and the part of us which needs to, is put to death in the waters, Christ descends into the waters in order for the Spirit to return to humanity. He is not in need of the Spirit and He is, in fact, The Life which has been lost to the human being. Christ comes to destroy death by His Life, by His being joined to our dying humanity he bestows life upon it. By baptized and returning the Spirit to us, He restores that open communion between God and the human being. Humanity’s broken communion with God resulted in its death. It is restored in the re-sending of the Spirit upon Christ, the first-born of The Spirit on our behalf.
The Spirit Remains upon Him – Becomes Permanent in Us
If we read St. John the Evangelist’s account of the baptism of Christ we catch things we may have glossed over, but which the fathers guide us to delve deeper into. St. John’s account goes as follows,
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.” And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.’” John 1.29-34
One of the things which may be lost upon us is St. John’s recording that the Spirit remained upon Him. Where Noah has the dove sent out only to ultimately depart from the ark passengers, Christ has the Spirit remain upon Him-and us in Him. St. Cyril of Alexandria comments,
“But when the Word of God became Man, He received the Spirit from the Father as one of us, (not receiving it for Himself individually, for He was the Giver of the Spirit); but that He Who knew no sin, might, by receiving It as Man, preserve It to our nature, and might again implant in us the grace which had left us. For this reason, I deem, it was that the holy Baptist profitably added, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven, and It remained upon Him.’ For It had fled from us by reason of sin, but He Who knew no sin, became as one of us, that the Spirit might be accustomed to abide in us, having no occasion of departure or withdrawal in Him.” St. Cyril of Alexandria on John 1:32-33.
The lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by preserving the Spirit to our nature, by re-uniting us to The Father (His Father by nature) through His human reception of the Spirit. Christ (fully human and fully Divine) does not lack the Spirit, but rather He receives the Spirit so that He can make a home for the Spirit within us – within humanity – once more. (Cf. John 10.10). Sin brings forth death by the human refusal of communion and participation in the Divine. Death, therefore, is uprooted from humanity by the implanting of the Spirit, the Spirit which brings forth Life by re-establishing communion. The Spirit in the form of a dove (as in Noah), returns to humanity through the waters so that the waters of chaos and death may be stayed by the presence of Christ, Who bestows life upon all through His human reception of the Spirit. This will bring us to the imagery in the above icon of The Feast of Theophany.
The Iconography of The Feast
There is an extremely curious element in the icon of this feast which is made mostly curious due to our modern sensibility (or lack thereof). In most icons of the feast we see familiar elements; the baptism of Christ, the witness of St. John the Baptist, the descent of the Spirit. We also see something else in the waters which may strike as a strange element or perhaps we may think it an element added for dramatic effect: there is a dragon being crushed by Christ. What are we to make of this dragon?
In ancient mythologies, the writings of the Church Fathers and the Church’s liturgical hymnography, the dragon is a familiar symbol. In fact the dragon is commonly depicted buried deep in the waters —the waters of chaos— or in the heart of the earth (which Christian symbolism has always associated with hades or the abode of the dead). The imagery of the dragon is also associated with Satan who is often depicted as a dragon, as the one who has the power of death (Hebrews 2.14). This dual imagery is seen during the festal hymnography of this season in the Church of Alexandria,
The only-begotten God, came to the Jordan, and the portrait that was destroyed, and ruined by sin.
He restored it once again, by the baptism of water, He demolished the head of the dragon, upon the water of the Jordan.
You have seen the Holy Spirit, coming down from heaven, and you have heard the voice of the Father, proclaiming and saying.
“This is My beloved Son, with whom My soul is well pleased, He does My will hear Him, for He is the life-Giver.”
The Second Doxology which is prayed during the Matins service of the Feast of Theophany
This imagery is not immediately intuitive to us for we do not see the world as the ancients did. The comments of literary scholar Northrop Frye in his discussion of the Bible are helpful here,
“The dragon is a particularly useful demonic animal not just because of its antisocial habits of breathing fire and eating virgins, but also because it doesn’t exist, and is consequently an admirable animal for illustrating the paradox of evil, which is a very powerful moral force in human life as we know it, but in the Apocalyptic world becomes simply nothingness, simply cannot exist at all. And that, perhaps, is the reason why the author of Revelation speaks of the dragon as the beast that ‘was, and is not, and yet is’ (Rev 17.8). That last ‘is’ in Greek is parestai which means continuing for a time being.” Frye, Northrop, and Jay Macpherson. Biblical and classical myths: the mythological framework of Western culture. University of Toronto Press, 2004. p78.
Evil, sin, and death are all parasitic, are all negations by the definition of their being and this is what is depicted so beautifully in the imagery of the dragon. In fact, in many icons of the Theophany you will see the dragon depicted in a quite shadowy way, such that you have to look carefully to understand what it is you are looking at. This shadowy illustration is there to emphasize this shadow of an existence that death occupies in our lives. Death occurs in the absence of life, evil is the privation and negation of good, the absence of the Spirit is the descent into the waters of chaos. Noah can arise from these deathly waters once more only through the alighting of the dove —the Holy Spirit. St. Basil teaches,
“In short, do not maintain that God is the cause of evil’s existence, nor imagine evil to have a subsistence on its own. For wickedness does not subsist as if it were a living being. Nor do we hold that its essence coexists in another subsistence. For evil is a privation of good. The eye was created, but blindness comes into being following the destruction of eyes. Therefore, if the eye did not have a perishable nature, blindness would not have a means of entry. Thus also evil is not in itself an existence but arises following the maiming of the soul… evil was not created with the good… And likewise God created the soul, but not sin. Rather, the soul is made evil through a perversion of what is according to nature.”St. Basil the Great on “That God is Not the Cause of Evil” in On the Human Condition, SVS Press, Pages 70-72
In the icon of the Theophany we see this same drama being played out in Christ’s human reception of the Spirit on our behalf. By his receiving The Spirit for us, He also crushes the head of the dragon, destroying death and nullifying its power. These two actions, depicted in the vertical axis of an icon, flow in such a way to remind us of their interrelation: the reception of the Spirit is the destruction of death. Where Adam and Eve had lost hold on life through their departure from the communion with The Spirit and the earth was overcome by death due to sin, Christ overwhelms the waters with His Life which he bestows upon us, having received the Spirit. By imparting the Spirit once more to the human being, the waters can be transformed into waters that bring forth life. St Cyril of Jerusalem states:
“For since the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise partook of the same (Heb 2.14), that having been made partakers of His presence in the flesh we might be made partakers also of His Divine grace: thus Jesus was baptized, that thereby we again by our participation might receive both salvation and honour. According to Job, there was in the waters the dragon that draws up the Jordan into his mouth (Job 40.23). Since, therefore, it was necessary to break the heads of the dragon in pieces (Ps 74.14), He went down and bound the strong one in the waters, that we might receive power to tread upon serpents and scorpions (Luke 10.19). The beast was great and terrible. No fishing-vessel was able to carry one scale of his tail (Job 40.26): destruction ran before him (Job 41.13), ravaging all that met him. The Life encountered him, that the mouth of Death might henceforth be stopped, and all we that are saved might say, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory (1 Cor 15.55)?” The sting of death is drowned by Baptism.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures; 3, Chapter 11.
As Christ receives the Spirit for us, He also destroys death on our behalf, these two actions being synonymous in the icon of the Theophany with the descent of the Spirit and the crushing of the dragon being simultaneous.
Our Baptism and The Death of Death
The waters are now transformed and made life-giving, rather than death-dealing, because of the presence of the Spirit upon them. The Spirit hovers once more over the waters just as at the creation, but now in an action of re-creation. Yet, the work is not done.We must still undergo our own symbolic death to join in the life which Christ has offered to us in the waters. In our own baptism, we put to death the sinful elements, we cast away the raven, through the indwelling of the Spirit who comes down upon us and introduces us to the life of The Trinity through adoption. It is for this reason that the Theophany is both the festal commemoration of the baptism of the Lord, but also the glorious revelation of the Trinity.
In contrast to Christ and likeness we drew to Noah, here we more closely resemble the crossing of the red sea by Moses and the people or the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the people. In those waters, the sinful elements, the dragon, that is pharaoh (in the case of Moses), were drowned and the people arose into newness of life being sanctified to God and establishing the spiritual life and rhythm of the people of Israel. In the case of Joshua, it is after the generation of the calf-idol has passed away that they are able to cross the river. Just as Egypt, a biblical trope for evil and sin, was drowned in the waters of the red sea, so too we put death to death in the waters of our own baptism and emerge to the life in God through the descent of the Spirit who makes us adopted sons and daughters (Cf. Rom 8.15). This is why St. Paul will say to the Romans that they must die with Christ and rise with Him again to newness of life,
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Romans 6.1-13.
In this way, we live baptismally, as it is were, by putting to death those dead elements of our life. Our attachments, our vices —that which chains and shackles us — are dissolved by the waters of baptism, but also by the tears or cries of a repentant heart. By our daily repentance we cross the Red Sea of our hearts and emerge from the desert of sin, putting to death those elements which are killing us and living unto God. Our repentance is not so much a feeling terribly guilty for our sins as it is a returning to the fatherly bosom, to the life in The Spirit for which we were created and which our sin has alienated us from. Let us return to our own baptism and drown the dragons which lurk hidden with us as Christ has crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters by calling forth the Spirit upon all of humanity in His person.