What’s Beneath the Water? Crushed Dragons.


This coming Sunday (New Calendar) marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year, the Feast of Theophany, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river. Across the world Orthodox Christians will gather after the Liturgy to bless the waters: the ocean, a river, a spring, etc.  

Every feast day in Orthodoxy is connected to the Feast of Pascha, because Pascha is God’s great act of salvation. However, some feasts show this connection more clearly than others. Three feasts in the year share the same pattern of services: Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany. Each has a Vesperal Liturgy on its Eve and a Vigil the night before (with occasional variances).

The icons of the three feasts are strikingly similar, with Christ descending into a background that is usually rendered with darkness. At Pascha the darkness is the darkness of death and Hell where Christ has gone to raise the dead. At Nativity the darkness is the cave in which he is born. This darkness is the darkness of the world that is caught in sin and death – but it is the same darkness as Hell. At Theophany the icon depicts Christ standing on the waters of the Jordan – but the waters themselves are depicted as dark, or at least highlighted with a dark background. The darkness at this feast is precisely the same darkness as that pictured in the icon of Pascha. For Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death.

Thus the waters of the Jordan become symbolic of Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death. The vigil of Theophany, like the vigil of Pascha, includes the reading of the book of the prophet Jonah – the reluctant messenger of God who was thrown overboard by his companions and swallowed by a great fish. This book is read because it contains the same image as the icons – the descent into the depths of Hades.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

At the Vespers of Theophany we hear this phrase:

Thou hast bowed Thine head before the Forerunner and hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

The phrase, “crushed the heads of the dragons,” comes from Psalm 74:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the w aters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

In this Psalm, God is recalled both as Creator, but also as the one who has brought order into the chaos of the world. He not only creates the waters, but crushes the heads of the dragons that dwell there. The “dragons” in the Psalm are an old English translation of the Hebrew word for whales. But the word “dragon” is an apt description of the demonic forces that are defeated in Christ’s death and its prefigurement in Baptism.

In the prayer over the waters, the priest says:

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan, sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.This same prayer is prayed over the waters blessed on the day of Theophany. The service for the blessing of the waters usually takes place by a local body of water.. At the very heart of the blessing a hand cross is thrown out into the water three times and retrieved with the singing of the festal troparion:

When Thou O Christ wast baptized in the Jordan,

the worship ofthe Trinity was made manifest.

For the voice of the Father bear witness to Thee,

and called Thee His beloved Son.

And the Spirit in the form of a dove,

confirmed the truthfulness of His word.

O Christ, our God who hast revealed Thyself,

and hast enlightened the world glory to Thee!

The same troparion is sung throughout the homes of the faithful during the season after Theophany as the priest carries the same blessing into our homes. Theophany is a proclamation to nature itself of Christ’s salvation. Our lives have plenty of “dragons,” in all shapes and sizes. But Christ is victorious over everything that would destroy his creation – particularly the people who are His own.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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21 responses to “What’s Beneath the Water? Crushed Dragons.”

  1. ngn01 Avatar

    A wonderful image, thanks! And an early Merry Christmas to you and yours from a fellow Pravoslav.


  2. T Avatar

    I live in Denver, and every Theophany a bunch of the local priests here from different parishes gather together, head up to the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains, and toss a cross made of frozen water onto the Western slope, and one onto the Eastern slope. When these melt, they will travel with the melted snow pack and bless both sides of the continent when the waters flow over the land and soil.

  3. Maximus Daniel Avatar

    that is awesome!

    Thank God!

  4. T Avatar

    I know, I love it!

  5. me Avatar

    I do not leave many comments, but a very beautiful image and an equally beautiful description. Thank you.

  6. Canadian Avatar

    Orthodoxy is so different from evangelicalism. We talk about faith alone but matter has almost no place in our Christian life. You guys throw crosses down mountain slopes, bless waters (by physically touching), rejoice in depictions of Christ’s victories (icons), carefully give eucharistic bread and wine (body and blood), cross yourselves, and effectually baptize or anoint with oil. We talk about faith yet have no faith that anything even happens when we baptize or have communion. The local Orthodox priest joked to me once that the Orthodox would begin to consider reunion with the Catholic church “when she apologizes and gives us back our “stuff” (referring to the sack of Constantinople in 1204). I thought for a moment and then said to him “we don’t even have any “stuff” in evangelicalism. But the Almighty took on “stuff” that we might be saved. So keep doing stuff with stuff, it’s starting to make a lot of sense.

  7. Hartmut Avatar

    This sunday will be my first Feast of Theophany and I’m looking forward to it. We will go from a center place in Frankfurt down to the Main river and there the blessing of the waters will take place. Right in the middle of our town we will celebrate.
    When I experiencend my first little blessing of waters (I don’t know the exact english term for this) in our church I was deeply moved. And without understanding most of the greek texts I even understood, what happend there. Christ in his incarnation an then in his baptism hallowed and sactified the matter, the whole earth so that the matter can be a sacrament, so that we can encaunter Him not “only” in our hearts, but also personal (again I don’t know, how to say it in english. We say: “leibhaft”), with all our senses, we are allowed to really touch the Holy (“to hagion” in greek): “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34,8a ).
    Christ did it then, when he lived as a human beeing on this earth and he did it right now when I was seeing the cross diving into the water here in our church.
    Glory to God who comes so close to us!

  8. ryanwesley Avatar

    That is inspiring and very beautiful. And the picture!


    Thank you for your reply! Right now I’m somewhere in the middle of the “Rainbow Series;” when I’m finished with these I’ll be sure to look up your suggestions. Thanks again for your time, I look forward to being a frequent reader here 🙂


    I know exactly what you mean, I have to say. That’s one of the things I’ve been discovering lately, too.

  9. […] Blessing of the water (Theophany … this weekend) […]

  10. Dave Abshear Avatar
    Dave Abshear

    Father Stephen, This is a wonderful post. I am a frequent reader. I am an a Anglican by confession, and I was wondering if you could explain some of the differences between this feast day and the feast day in the Western calendar (Anglican) the feast of Epiphany? Is there some connection? I love the imagery here. And as someone who earlier posted about doing “stuff” We in anglicanism do stuff, but I do love many things in the orthodox world.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    In the Anglican Church in recent liturgical revisions, the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the Visit of the Magi (and thus takes on a note of evangelical proclamation) and the following week (under influence from the East) celebrates the Baptism of Christ – but really without much theological content on the latter.

    The treasury of Orthodoxy, in many ways, is its liturgical life, texts, icons, hymns, etc., all of which form a seamless garment of doctrine and revelation in our salvation through Christ. There really is nothing else to which it compares in Christendom. Every reform that has occurred elsewher, has shortened and condensed, etc., until only a few threads of the garment remain and they don’t fit together very well at all.

    It took several maybe even a few more than that liturgical cycles as an Orthodox priest to begin to see the utter richness and interwoven character of the ancient Church year. That both Christmas and Theophany are patterned on Pascha, in almost every aspect, open up and exegete those feasts and their texts in a way that nothing else does. The West has separated everything and made things so discreet that each one stands, more or less on its own, and languishes there.

    Cranmer produced a nice prayer book, but he threw away a beauty that the West may never recover. Those working on materials for the Western rite in Orthodoxy are working to reverse some of this. I’m not very familiar with their work and thus could not comment on what success they may or may not have had. But I am deeply grateful for the suffering and faithfulness within the Orthodox Church that has preserved this fullness of Christianity – not only for the Orthodox, but for the whole world.

  12. handmaid Avatar

    II will see you there?
    I attend Holy Theophany in Colorado Springs, Bishop Benjamin is coming this year!

  13. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I have done a good deal of study of the true BCP (1549-1928). What does hold together is almost always inspired by Cranmer’s reading in the Fathers and his resourcing the Liturgies of St. John and St. Basil. This is often most evident in the Collects.

  14. T Avatar

    handmaid, I just may go. I don’t have anything planned this coming Tuesday, so I think it would be a great time.

    And Canadian,

    Speaking of “doing stuff with stuff,” it kinda makes you wonder if Paul really believed that by the laying on of his hands that Timothy actually received a gift from God. Hmmm…….

  15. handmaid Avatar

    Here is a video I made from last year at the Blessing of the Continental Divide and posted on YouTube:

    Blessed Feast everyone!

    In Christ,
    the handmaid,

  16. mattyonke Avatar


    I haven’t posted here much, but you may recall I’m a Byzantine Rite Catholic. I have a friend whom I coaxed out of evangelicalism who then skated right past Catholicism (where I would have had him stop) and into Orthodoxy.

    While I was happy he wasn’t protestant anymore, it had been weighing heavily on my heart that he wasn’t Catholic.

    All that is to say that reading your blog these past few months has made me feel a whole lot better about the situation. We have so much in common. I wish there could be complete unity (and pray and hope and believe that there will be someday) but until there is, I’m glad that we share the liturgical year and icons and all the richness of the East.

    As a side note, though modernization has left many parts of the Anglo church without the richness of the Church year, that doesn’t mean that the Roman calendar is devoid of value. It might not be the Eastern year (which is my tradition and I love it dearly) but Roman rite spirituality and the ebb and flow of their liturgical time is different, not worse.

    Just food for thought. Thanks again for all you write!


  17. handmaid Avatar

    Matt, this might help, it does me…

    Remember well that what is worthy of praise in you is not yours, but God’s. It was, indeed, something we acquired, because we tried to acquire it, but who gave us the disposition, ability, strength, desire, and opportunity to obtain it, if not God… so when you perceive in yourself something worthy of praise, immediately ascribe it not to yourself, but to the Lord God.

    ~ Metropolitan Gregory (1860)

    I only mean to say, rejoice that your friend is a Christian and that the Lord gave you a role to play. That is wonderful, other than that, everything is the Lord’s.

    In Christ,
    the handmaid

  18. […] handmaid, Mary-Leah,” gleaned from the comments at Father Stephen’s blog “Glory to God for All Things.” Truly: Glory be to Thee, Oh […]

  19. -C Avatar

    “Every reform that has occurred elsewhere, has shortened and condensed, etc., until only a few threads of the garment remain and they don’t fit together very well at all.”

    How true this is, Father. And sadly you don’t see this when you are in it – when you have grown up in the reformed tradition and know nothing else. But once you are Orthodox, this becomes more obvious over time.

    Thank you for this wonderful post and for all of your posts which are always so helpful.


  20. […] A beautiful picture of Theophany celebrated in the Orthodox manner. Posted by ngn01 Filed in Eastern Orthodoxy […]

  21. […] If you’d really like to read a much more edifying post on the meaning of Theophany than my rambling nonsense, please visit one of my favorite priest bloggers, Fr. Stephen at Glory to God for all Things.  […]

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