The Holy Feast of the Epiphany

The dictionary defines the word epiphany as “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.”  Therefore in order for us to truly understand what the Feast of the Epiphany means, we must truly understand the reasons why Christ was baptised.

 It is first and foremost essential for us to remember that in celebrating feasts of our Lord, we are not celebrating for Him, but for humanity – what Christ has done for us on behalf of humanity. God did not need to send His Son for Himself, be crucified for Himself and resurrect for Himself – He knew humanity’s need; hence we celebrate what Christ does for humanity, rather than for Himself, on the Feast of the Epiphany.

As we have been taught, the Feast of the Epiphany is also known as the Feast of the Divine Manifestation (theophany). Why do we call it this? Because when Christ was baptised, 2 things were made manifest – His Divinity (Matthew 3:17), and the Holy Trinity (Matthew 3:16). Because man is made of material, Christ united Himself to that material in order for us to be able to comprehend and receive His Divine Grace.

The question we ask ourselves every year around this time is “Why was Christ baptised? He wasn’t in need of cleansing!” Let us explore just a few of the reasons. Firstly, as the Holy Spirit tells us through Saint Matthew the Evangelist, John the Baptist informed the Pharisees and Sadducees that they were in need of baptism (Matthew 3:7-12), correcting their misunderstanding that only sinners needed baptism. As William Barclay tells us, "It is the fact that never in all history before this had any Jew submitted to being baptized. The Jews knew and used baptism, but only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that the sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptized, but no Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God's salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners, and no Jew ever conceived of himself as a sinner shut out from God. Now for the first time in their national history the Jews realized their own sin and their own claimant need of God” (The Gospel of Matthew, The Daily Study Bible series). The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two prominent groups in Judaism, whose beliefs were considerably different to the Jewish law of that day. Here, we see Christ begin to bring unity among His people in setting the perfect example; by showing us that no matter who we are – lead servants, Priests, Bishops - we are all in need of baptism.

The church Fathers tell us that Christ sanctified the waters of baptism through immersion. Why immersion? The word baptise comes from the original Greek word “baptizo”, which means to immerse. The Greek word to mean sprinkle is “rhantizo”, and the Greek word to mean poured is “katacheo”. If God intended for baptism to be obtained through sprinkling and pouring of water, He would have inspired the Holy Spirit to write this. Instead, the Holy Spirit inspired Saint Paul to inform us that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death.” This resurrection cannot occur through sprinkling or pouring of water, but through full immersion into the water, just as Christ sets us the perfect example (Mark 1:10). As Saint Gregory of Nyssa tells us, “And we, receiving baptism, conceal ourselves in the water as the Saviour did on the earth. We are buried in the water three times to resemble the Lord’s burial on the earth three days and by doing this thrice; we celebrate in His resurrection which occurred after three days” (Sermon for the day of lights).

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). If we look at the dictionary definition of the word “righteousness”, it is to go back to the original state before wrongdoing - this wrongdoing being the consequence of the sin of Adam. Christ, born and conceived of the Holy Spirit did not inherit this sin yet, in ultimate humility, sets the perfect example for us in knowing sin and being baptised as if One who inherited the consequences of the original sin. Saint Ambrose tells us “The Lord was baptised, not to be cleansed Himself but to cleanse the waters so that those waters cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes therefore to the washing of Christ lays aside His sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83).

Why immersion in water? The first thing that God created was the waters. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1:2. Due to the sin which Adam committed, the waters were no longer pure. All of creation was purified and sanctified as the waters symbolise creation. The first thing God created was the water. The first part of the old creation was water, and the first part of the new creation was the sanctification of water. Therefore Christ chose to be baptised in water in order to represent the sanctification of all of creation. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem tells us that “He sanctified baptism by Himself being baptised. He was baptised not that He might receive remission of sins, but being sinless He was baptised to give to them that are baptised the divine and excellent grace. For since the children are partakers of human flesh and blood, He also likewise partook of the same (Hebrews 2:14) – flesh and blood, that having been made partakers of His presence in the flesh, we might be made partakers also of His Divine Grace” (Catechetical Lectures 3, 11-13).

Finally, I leave you with an important point about being born into the family of Christ. The Holy Spirit tells us through Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (Galatians 4:6). The Father told the Son through baptism “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). Therefore what Christ is by nature (the Son of God) we obtain by grace. Christ tells us through baptism, “this is My beloved son/daughter in whom I am well pleased”, and we are therefore adopted into His family through baptism. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa tells us, “In the birth by water and the Spirit, Jesus Himself led the way in His birth drawing down upon the water by His baptism the Holy Spirit so that in all things He became the firstborn of those spiritually born again and gave the name of “brethren” of those who partook of the rebirth through water and Spirit” (Against Eunomius 2:8)

I wish you all a blessed and Holy Feast of the Epiphany, remembering the reasons why Christ humbly chose to set an example for us through baptism; and may we remember “there is an antitype which now saves us – baptism” (1 Peter 3:21), and that we may be sanctified and cleansed “with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).

St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in London is one of the oldest Coptic churches in the lands of the immigration, and one of the first to be supported and cared for by our beloved patriarch, HH the late Pope Shenouda III.

  • St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church
    Allen Street, Kensington
    London W8 6UX