Posts Tagged ‘Theophany’

Uncreated Star of Bethlehem

Five years ago I alluded to this, but I’ve just seen concise discussion of it from no less than the Father of the Church St. John Chrysostom, and from certain Old Testament prophecies ‘in its Light.’

It also makes me think of how some non-Orthodox “got saved” by God….  The Apolytikion (a hymn) given on this page brings home the point.  The Magi are commemorated as Saints on Dec. 25.  (Recall that Orthodoxy commemorates the Magi’s Adoration of the Incarnate YHWH not on Jan. 6 but at Christmas; our Great Feast of Theophany [Epiphany] focuses on His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner [Baptist].)  OrthodoxWiki mentions the memory of their eventual baptism by St. Thomas the Apostle to the Indo-Iranians, and service to The Church as Bishops.

What about the mentions of an angel?  Readers of this blog may recall our discussions of the uncreated Logos-Angel from many Old Testament theophanies … highlighted in the writings of Greek-American theologian Fr. John S. Romanides (†2001) … so this need not be a problem, especially because Orthodoxy reminds us that the Divine Hypostatic Logos is not circumscribed by His Incarnation, ie, not ‘completely contained’ in or limited by His Human Body.  Could He appear as Infant and “Angel” at the same time?  Unusual perhaps, but I don’t see why not, although I must confess I haven’t seen this explicitly discussed anywhere yet.

One Web source I read said Western European pagans, even before Christianization, appreciated this, as it were their ‘cameo’ appearance at the very beginning of Christianity’s New Testament.  Similarly, I can say that even as a blond Western Catholic child here in the States, I was fascinated by and appreciated my family’s small wood-and-hay(?) Nativity set featuring non-Mediterranean-looking “kings”: a blond, an African, and an East Asian!*  I also read that extracanonical accounts ‘internationalizing’ them are quite old indeed.  Well, they do “represent the Gentiles,” and foreshadow many more of our ancestors’ conversions to the Faith….  For some reason I thought of the “White” one as some aged King of England — I didn’t know then that that title and State didn’t exist during Christ’s life on Earth!

I couldn’t leave this off without a plug for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s “Christmas Star” (or another picture of it).  One night during college, around 1985-86, I was driving around town lost (though sober)** and someone told me I almost knocked it down or something!  It sits atop Wyandotte Hill/South Mountain, one of Penna.’s many long, skinny, relatively-low,*** ridge-like mountains, that divides the Lehigh Valley from the main Philadelphia area, as well as from my undergraduate school campus just south of Bethlehem.

And, twelve “kings”?  Catholic priest / sociologist / novelist Andrew Greeley’s Russian (Orthodox) lay student / artist / mystic / beauty / love interest in his 1997 Christmas / spiritual classic Star Bright! (available here) alludes to a 12-magi tradition, without many details except to say something I haven’t encountered personally in Orthodoxy yet, that “We Russians know there were 12 kings” (or words to that effect).  But an English translation of the apocryphal Syriac Revelation of the Magi has recently come out, and it names twelve.  Furthermore, if one Amazon reviewer reports correctly, if you have any Western European ancestry, you may have one or more Magi in your family tree.  How’s that for Gentile foreshadowing?!  Other reviews lead me to doctrinal caution about the Revelation [Apocalypse??] of the Magi, but also hint (seemingly unknowingly) at o/Orthodox Uncreated Energies Theology perhaps.  But some of the kings named by the Armenian reviewer have names or associations I might have encountered a long time ago while tracing my Norman Irish ancestors (Hibernicized McCoogs) into traditional medieval West European royal and noble genealogies … the kind today’s experts say are dubious, but were part of our cultures for most of the last thousand years if not longer … and geneticists now say we might all share in some way.  (Something like some Assyrian kings back there too, being Semites, traditionally then Kin of God!)  (This is another review I saw of it, from a Catholic perspective.)

PS: Many Years to Fr. Greeley!  Glad to see he’s doing better some!  Thank God!

(*–The one with the wind-up music box playing “Silent Night.”)

(**–If you can read and comprehend this without getting a headache, you’re a better driver than I was!)

(***–Compared to, say, the Adirondacks, or the Rockies.)

The main meaning of the Greek verb baptizo, from which the English word baptism is ultimately derived (as Mr. Portokalos advised us!), is to dip, as in water.

Christianity as such didn’t invent the practice of dipping converts in water.  The Old Testament Church sometimes baptized proselytes, and so did some other Near Eastern religions.  But dipping quickly became a hallmark of Christianity.  The Lord was baptized by the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, and very early, Christians commemorated this on a yearly basis, along with the Lord’s other “manifestations,” on the Great Feast of the Theophany, January 6.  The Gospel According to St. John the Theologian 3:22, 4:1-2 indicates that the Lord Himself and/or His disciples baptized followers very early.  Water imagery is frequent in the Gospels.  And of course, the Lord commanded his Apostles to ‘make students [disciples] of all nations, dipping them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ which they did, as the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles attest.

However, I haven’t made a study of it, but I have never seen a depiction, East or West, of the Lord’s Baptism by John, in which He seemed completely immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John.  (That might be hard to draw or paint.)  Usually what seems to be going on is that the Lord, or both He and John, are standing in the river, partially immersed, with John pouring water over the Lord’s head.  Today Orthodox Judaism requires total immersion for some mikvah bath-taking, including for conversion to the faith.  Something similar is reflected in Orthodox Christian theology, East and, originally, West, from very early on, including in the canonical Epistles.  The most profound o/Orthodox theology around Christian Baptism is actually uniting the convert to Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead, as the Holy Apostle Paul is well-known to point out (see Romans 6).  The early Fathers of the Church discuss how triple-immersion Baptism mimics burial in the ground and resurrection from the dead – done three times, once for each day the Lord spent in the tomb; or for His (1) Death, (2) Burial, and (3) Resurrection from the Dead; and of course for (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit, as He commanded.  In fact some Christian sects baptized by single-immersion, and this was condemned by Ecumenical Councils as “baptism only into His Death,” as if not also into His Burial and Resurrection from the Dead.  Thus, even now, the unbaptized enter Orthodox Christianity by triple immersion.

Theologically, Orthodox Baptism unites you to the Lord’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead – the Mystery of our Salvation.  In this way, you are united energetically – in His Energies, but not His imparticipable Essence – to Him, becoming a member of His Body, His Orthodox Church, just like His hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouth and nose, as St. Paul says repeatedly.  God’s All-Holy Spirit, of course, is “everywhere present, filling all things,” as Orthodox pray constantly in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”  But especially in Christ’s Body, whether during His three years on Earth, now in Heaven, or in His Body on Earth the Orthodox Church since Pentecost.  So it is as a member of Christ’s Body that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you too after Baptism and the sealing with the Holy Spirit, Chrismation (“confirmation”), immediately after Baptism.  Thus is Adam and Eve’s sin, the Ancestral Sin, removed from you – through your “death,” “resurrection from the dead,” union with Christ Himself “who knew no sin,” and filling with His Divine Spirit.

Somehow much of this has been lost in Western Christian tradition, where baptism became associated only formalistically with water, washing, joining the church, and salvation, as exemplified by the old Catholic Encyclopedia article.  By which I mean that they may sometimes still say the words in the homily or in spiritual journals or theological essays, but as someone who studied for both Latin and Protestant ministries, I can say they lack the resonance that they have in an Orthodox Church that baptizes by immersion.  As the CE points out, non-immersion Baptism was (and still is, in Orthodoxy) always considered permissible in unusual circumstances – unavailability of sufficient water, illness or decrepitude, disability, maybe even a perceived need for secrecy in situations of persecution.  But according to this source (scroll to bottom), baptism by pouring became the usual method in the West just on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.  I am unable to find out why it did so even in the case of infants – the most common candidates for baptism – who should be pretty easy to dip!  But I have a theory: In what might be called ‘standing immersion,’ as with depictions of the Lord, water was poured over the candidate’s head – in o/Orthodox Christianity, perhaps evoking His Burial at least by completely covering the body with some water, even after the fashion of throwing dirt on the grave.  Now if the association of Baptism with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead was essentially lost in the West, you were left with pouring water over the head without standing in water, a theology mostly of (merely) washing (ie, “washing away Original Sin”), and from there, the degradation of the rite and its associations in faith and practice, until you reach a point where a slightly-revived Immersion practice (post-Vatican II) is feared by some Latins as threatening the theology of the sacrament!  You even have the obsession of some Western schools of theology – Latin and Protestant, for and against – with the question of ‘how little is required to have a “valid baptism”?’, leading to exhaustive, contrived discussions of sprinkling, smudging, use of sand, baptism by a nonbeliever, even baptizing in utero, and all the other s/Scholastic excesses that never had any significant place in actual Western Christian life.  I don’t have specific historical information regarding how the association with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead were essentially lost, except to cite the general erosion of o/Orthodox t/Theology in the West, especially after the final real loss of Communion by the West with the rest of the Church dated at AD 1054.  (Celt that I am, I’m developing a renewed appreciation for just how “dark” the “Dark Ages,” a Western phenomenon,* really became – tragically.  Why would God allow that?)

Under Western influence, some Orthodox dioceses (and apparently most Byzantine-Rite Eastern Catholics) temporarily adopted Baptism by Pouring as their main method in the 16-1800s, but I believe most if not all Orthodox now normally use some form of Immersion again.  There is some discussion about how to receive converts to Orthodoxy who have been previously baptized by various methods in Heterodox Christianity, and it has varied somewhat historically from time to time, from place to place, and from Heterodox church to Heterodox church, but I believe the most common method, at least in the United States now, is by Chrismation – as I was received into the Greek Archdiocese of America in 2002 – not seeing an absolute need for a fresh Orthodox Baptism given the situation here.  (It’s actually more complex than that, and I don’t have a firm grip on it myself, but this is the decision of our Bishops and Synods, whose responsibility it is.  Greek Orthodox Metropolitan ISAIAH of Denver, who I am under the impression is quite the theologian, discusses this pastorally in a couple letters to his clergy in 2000 here and here.  The Archdiocese also advises me that it’s technically on a case-by-case basis.)

(*–Remember that only in the West did the true Empire of the Romans fall in the middle of the first Christian millennium.  It lived on in the East for another 1,000 years, with civilization, urbanity, literacy, science, etc.  Constantinople was the world’s largest city outside China!)

As you might suspect, this isn’t exactly what it sounds like.

If the old Catholic Encyclopedia had their history right a century ago – for instance, their pieces about Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – then besides Pascha, the earliest big Christian feast was around January 6.

(I’m not a professional historian, but ISTM the CE catalogs alot of fascinating historical data, including about the Early Church. They have a potentially-misleading Rome-centrism, they buy into alot of the early-PC “pagan influences” theories about certain practices in Christianity, and they really don’t understand alot of the Orthodoxy, Eastern or Western, about which they report. But often from their ‘bricks’ an Orthodox might be able to build a more reasonable picture of aspects of the past than the CE itself does. Even I try.)

It seems Jan. 6 (on whatever calendar) commemorated the many manifestations of Christ’s “glory” or Divinity, from His Nativity to His Transfiguration, including not only His revelation to the Magi but also miracles during His ministry – healings, the changing of water to wine at Cana, feedings of thousands, the raising of Lazarus, etc. The CE doesn’t have a truly satisfactory reason as to the choice of this date. As they indicate, this date went by many related names, such as Theophany, Epiphany, Manifestation, Apparition, Day of Light, etc. Interestingly, this multifaceted Feastday is still echoed in the Latin Liturgy of the Hours – in particular the Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons on the day itself, as I experienced as a teenager studying for the Latin priesthood and religious life.

(In Orthodox liturgy as in Judaism and many other ancient cultures, every day begins with Vespers [Evening Prayer] the night before, and ends at the beginning of Vespers that evening. But in the Latin Church, only Sundays and major feastdays begin the night before, and paradoxically, they continue through the ‘evening of,’ so they have two Vespers services, First and Second Vespers [or Evening Prayer I and II]. Several Latin services of the hours include Gospel Canticles, ie, hymns/poetry from the New Testament. Morning Prayer – what English-speaking Orthodox call Matins or Orthros – includes the Benedictus or Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of St. Luke 1: 68-79, and Evening Prayer includes the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary from Luke 1: 46-55. The Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons are recited or chanted before and after these Canticles, IOW, twice each service. And feastdays have antiphons that talk about the feast being commemorated.)

This is even though, as is well known, the Latins came to emphasize Christ’s first revelation to non-Jews, the Magi, shortly after His birth, over all other aspects of the Jan. 6 feast. Also, the name Epiphany ‘stuck’ in the West as its official designation, from Greek meaning a manifestation, although it is also well-known in Spanish as Dia de los Reyes, the Day of the [Three] Kings, and in English as Little Christmas, the end of the twelve-day Christmas celebration of Christ’s Nativity which begins December 25. (Although in recent years some local Latin Churches have been allowed by Rome to move Epiphany to a nearby Sunday, for many it remains a huge feast on whatever day of the week it falls.)

The CE says Christians in Rome tended to go along with the local Solstice-time celebration of the Sun (god)’s birthday, and so their leaders decided to make it, for them, a celebration of the birth according to the flesh of the Sun of Justice, the Dawn from on high, the one and only Lord, Jesus Christ. And the idea spread East, although Orthodox services for Dec. 25 include both the Lord’s birth and the visit of the Magi. “Christmas” of course is the name for the Dec. 25 feast in English, meaning “Christ Mass” or Liturgy; similarly, churches or cathedrals dedicated to Christ and called “Christ Church” in the English-speaking world generally mark their patronal feastday on Christmas, and Greek men named Christos, their nameday. Many other languages continue to call it Nativity: Spanish Navidad, Italian Natale, etc. The main Greek word is Gennesis, which can mean begetting or birth (‘generation’), which – I could be corrected on this – I believe is why in Orthodoxy we often see it referred to in full as “the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ According to the Flesh,” to distinguish it from His begetting by God the Father from all eternity, even though I don’t believe the word nativity could ever be mistaken by English-speakers for anything other than His birth according to the flesh.

Meanwhile the East came to emphasize the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan among the older multiple Jan. 6 manifestations, and the name Theophany generally stuck, Greek for the revelation of God, although sometimes Orthodox call it Epiphany. The West came to mark a separate Feast of the Baptism of the Lord shortly after Jan. 6. Theophany is considered a huge feast in Orthodoxy, while the Lord’s Baptism is not, in Latinism, though as already noted, Epiphany in much of Latinism still is. This causes some confusion for Latins, who believe that for the Orthodox the Magi are extremely important, because Latins associate the Magi with Jan. 6, Orthodox Theophany. Ironically, if you don’t get to an Orthodox parish for the services held before the actual Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, the only Gospel you’ll hear at Nativity IS the Magi Gospel, since the birth narrative comes earlier in the day’s schedule of multiple services.

Speaking of holiday excess, as the CE notes – see under “Popular merry-making”! – it’s always been a complaint of some Christians about other Christians at this time of year, even in ancient times! One thing I didn’t know is that Latin Advent, the period currently set-off by the four Sundays before Dec. 25, used to have a fasting practice, though like the Orthodox Nativity Fast or Philipovka (because it starts November 15 after the feast of St. Philip the Apostle), not as strict as the Great Fast/Lent. Though in some times and places Advent began at the Fall Equinox, in September! And once, because of the 12 Days of Christmas’ partying getting out of hand, a further fast was imposed then! The thing is, Orthodox “feasting” is advised not to become a license for overindulgence and debauchery, enslavement to the passions we’ve just spent an entire season working to free ourselves more from. But Latin Advent now is limited to a liturgical season, with service prayers and readings emphasizing waiting for the Lord’s coming(s) into the world and people’s hearts and lives – much more developed in that sense than Orthodox practice, although Orthodox hymns in church occasionally evoke preparation for Nativity. Western Advent is a fall/winter Lent without the fasting. Orthodox sometimes call their fast the Advent Fast.

How Orthodox handle near and dear Heterodox “feasting” during their Advent is often an issue and a question, especially for recent converts to jurisdictions that try to maintain something of the traditional Orthodox Fast for the full 40 days, throughout U.S. Thanksgiving Day (for New Calendar Orthodox), workplace and organization (pre)Christmas parties, etc. But I recall that for thousands of years for most Christians and their forebears, that is, north of the Tropics, this period has fallen between Fall harvest and Spring planting, an agricultural down-time often used for extra cultural and social activities, including packing-on calories and body-fat together for the long, cold winter. “Old habits die hard!”

Then there’s the shopping-madness. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” says the Lord, according to St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. But of course, amid would-be recipients’ expressed demands, our pressure on ourselves in their regard, and the rage of traffic, parking lots, and store aisles, it doesn’t necessarily feel blessed in the preparation! Sorry, I don’t have any new solutions for that one!