The Theophany in Which We Live


The liturgical life of the Church makes a very clear link between the Nativity of Christ, the Theophany at His Baptism, and Pascha. Elements of Pascha run throughout the texts for the services of all three feasts, and even the icons echo one another. There is a recognition that at Nativity, Christ enters the “Winter Pascha,” becoming man, taking on even the weakness of an infant, He has embraced the same weakness that He will exhibit on the Cross. The icon depicts Him wrapped in swaddling cloths, but clearly echoing the winding sheet of His death. He is always shown, born in a cave, not a stable, and the cave resembles nothing so much as the cave of Hades which we see in the icon of His resurrection (the “Harrowing of Hell”).

There is also a hiddenness in His nativity. The Wise Men know, though they followed a star in finding Him. The hymn for the feast notes the irony that God brought the Wise Men who worshipped stars to come to see the Christ by following a star. Wicked King Herod inadvertently found out about a messiah’s birth through the Wise Men’s visit. Shepherds heard the news from angels. Otherwise the event happens in relative quiet. Most especially, it seems to have been an event that was hidden from the adversary. There are no demonic attacks associated with Christ’s birth – only the bloody political murders of innocents in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, the family, warned in a dream, take refuge in Egypt and when they return to Israel, go to Galilee and settle in the obscurity of Nazareth.

At Christ’s Baptism something else happens. He not only submits Himself to Baptism, as though He were a sinner (“Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world”), but immediately after this glorious Theophany (so named because it is a showing forth of God: the Son in His Baptism, the Voice of the Father spoke, and the Spirit in the form of a dove was seen by Christ and St. John the Forerunner), we are told that the Spirit “drove Him into the wilderness.” And there He was tempted by Satan. Though he gains victories over each temptation, the whole of His ministry will be a confrontation with the powers of evil. It is clear that His Baptism, His entering into the waters, not only foreshadows His entry into Hades and His triumph (“He crushed the heads of the dragons”) but it also served notice to Hell that the battle was begun. Thereafter, when approaching a city, it is not unusual for Christ in the gospels to be confronted by a demoniac who knows already Who He is. Human beings may have argued and discussed the matter – but Hell knew.

And yet at the final Theophany – at His Pascha – though Hell knew Who He Was – it did not realize the consequences of His death. What seemed like victory was, in fact, taking the untakeable into the depths of Hell. Hell could not contain Him nor prevent Him from smashing its gates and making a way to the resurrection for all. And after this event, everyone knows – or may know. What has been whispered in the corner can now be shouted from the rooftop.

But we live somewhere between Theophany and Pascha, it seems to me. Pascha has come and nothing can change that. I can stand in the Divine Liturgy and the full promise of Pascha is given to me. I am in heaven and I eat the bread of angels. But on a daily basis I am one who has just been Baptized. Driven by the Spirit into the world I wrestle with temptations. Sometimes I fall, and yet, by grace I manage to stand up again. This is the battle and it is every day and unrelenting. And there is no promise that life will be otherwise. “For whoever would be my disciple must take up His cross and follow me.”

Throwing the cross into the river today was a great joy. Shouting for all the world to hear: “Marvelous are Thy works, O Lord, and there are no words that are sufficient to hymn Thy wonders!” Watching the cross splash and to think of the crashing that occurred in Hell as the Crucified entered the darkness of its domain. “Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” A blinding light.

But walking away from the river was also a reminder that I return to the wilderness where the battle goes on. Today I will take up my cross, renouncing Satan and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride. Breathe and spit on him. And take up the cross again and walk again until the wilderness is finished and all of creation is swallowed up in the victory of Pascha – the last great Theophany. Glory to God.

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.


17 responses to “The Theophany in Which We Live”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    A Baptism in which I participated several years back in Kentucky. I am the priest with his back to you – yes, with a ponytail. I no longer wear one. The other priest is the Archpriest Theodore Pisarchuk from Jacksonville, FL, one of the better missionaries I have known. A great priest.

  2. RJackson Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m a Catholic who really enjoys your blog. If I ever had a complaint it would never be over the actual content but my sheer inability to process so much depth.

  3. mattyonke Avatar

    Excellent post Father. The Theophany troparia are among my very favorite of the year. My son, Ambrose, was baptized on Theophany last year and it does my heart good every time I hear “When thou wert baptized in the Jordan O Lord…”

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

  4. […] meaning of Theophany. A calendar I was reading the other night, noted Theophany is the third most important feast day of […]

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’ll try to write less.

  6. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    Fr. Stephen, I have a question about the terminology you used in this post.

    One of my brothers who, although he converted to Orthodoxy, has become agnostic; however, not too long ago he asked me a question about life after death, hell, etc.

    In attempting to answer him, I went looking for the Orthodox teaching on life after death and stumbled on to a transcription of a speech by Fr. Thomas Hopko wherein he says that the Church teaches that there is no material hell. He pointed out that there is some confusion in the English language that is associated with the translation of certain words in the Scripture such as hell, Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, etc. etc.

    My understanding from him is that these words are sometimes used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be. He said that hell is what happens after death to a human being who rejects the love of God; that the love of God is what burns a person — that hell is not a PLACE.

    So… I’m confused about your use of the words “hell” and “Hades” in this post — you seem to be using them interchangeably in speaking about Christ — about “Hell” being afraid of Him.

    Will you further clarify this for me?

    Thank you…


  7. handmaid Avatar

    Don’t you dare write less! Am I the only one who got a chill! It was wonderful, meaningful and I will stop there lest you (as if that could happen) feel any pride.
    I have deeper understanding and that is why I read here, and attend the Church I do.
    Blessings on the feast!
    the handmaid

  8. […] For a wonderful read to help process the feast:  Glory to God for all things! […]

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, Ronda, the words to get used interchangeably. Frequently, since Protestants don’t use Hades much at all, the word Hell is used. It carries some of the same impact – to say that “Hell” was afraid, is to say that “all the hosts of hell, i.e. the demons, were afraid.” It is a common phrase in our hymnography. It is not saying that a place was afraid, but that the powers of hell, i.e. the demons, were afraid. Sometimes the hymnography of the Church will speak of hell as though it were a place, but that is, if you will, poetic license. Hopko is quite correct in his teaching (as if I could ever judge him – he is one of the finest teachers of Orthodoxy in America).

    The doctrine of a material fire (in hell) is not found in the Eastern Fathers and was specifically repudiated by St. Mark of Ephesus in his writings against the Council of Florence (which is rejected by the Orthodox). Instead, the Orthodox understand the fire of hell in a spiritual manner to represent the sufferings of those who are tormented by their own hatred of God while yet being loved by God. God torments no one, nor does He desire to see anyone tormented.

    But liturgical language (especially English translations) are notoriously loose with these terms, largely following English tradition. You simply have to read them with Orthodox eyes that understand the doctrine of the Church, and give room for the poetic use that you will hear in many texts (or find in casual writings such as on a blog). It sounds better to say Hell was afraid, than Hades was afraid. And Hell is a better collective noun for Death, disease, the demons, etc., than Hades. I will pray for your brother.

  10. mrselizabethj Avatar

    Handmaid, you are not the only one who got a chill reading this. 🙂

  11. Don Avatar

    handmaid: You are not the only one who got chills.

    I pray that you never write less, Father. On this blog, more IS more.

  12. […] Orthodoxy, Personal, Religion Yesterday was the Feast of Epiphany, or Theophany (see here, and here, and here; be sure to read the Comments section of that last link, particularly the posts […]

  13. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your explanation about the use of those words (Hades and Hell). I can see how Hell is a better noun for all of that, and how it is better for most English speaking, Western people to hear that Hell was afraid rather than Hades, although to me it sounds right either way. Perhaps I do have an Orthodox ear now to some extent; if only the rest of my thinking would come along… : )

    I wonder if that use of language — and also the way that the Orthodox treat written music with no time signature, for example — is in some way a metaphor for or maybe just a demonstration of how the Church treats so many areas that denominational Christianity is so dogmatic about…

    I don’t know if I can articulate what I’m thinking here, except to say that prior to being Orthodox I tried to make the world in my mind black and white; I insisted on it so that I could feel more secure, I think. But in the Church I see a measured but passionate approach to life; again hope I can make sense about what I’m thinking… Although order is embraced, it isn’t made primary; it doesn’t rule over the thing or the person oppressively; it isn’t treated as something absolute… And so you can see that it is possible to find or create beauty without insisting fanatically on a strict adherence to… the time signature… the exact meaning of the word… perfection in a human being… This seems to me to be true to the complexity and reality of life in a fallen world — maybe the word for that is that Greek word for “economy”… Does this make any sense? I am still inclined — as I demonstrated by my discomfort with using a word relatively instead of absolutely — to try to force reality into certain little labelled boxes… But it is always a relief when I see that the Church doesn’t do that; instead of forcing the world and all of us to fit into a certain box that is either black or white, She allows shadow and the highlights while still being true to the Truth… ?


  14. […] waters (amongst other things;better theological explanations are available many places, including here) In Fr. Gregory Jensen’s homily for the feast, he mentioned that in his time serving the […]

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think I understand what you’re saying. For me, it is seeing that the Church is healing and restoring my humanity (in its fullness) as well as uniting me to God, neither of which is a rational syllogism. Truth is truer than rationality. Reason is simply not large enough to contain it. So the Truth is not contrary to reason – only larger – just as a medical textbook can be “true” without being a human being. It is sanctified human beings we are becoming, not theological textbooks.

  16. […] FR. STEPHEN: The Theophany in Which We Live …. […]

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