In the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church, January 6th marks the feast of Theophany (also known as Epiphany in the West), which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by the prophet John (known also as the Forerunner, because he prophesied the coming of Christ). Theophany marks the end of the Christmas season, which you may know as the 12 days of Christmas, the period of time in which the good news of “God with us” is revealed to the world.
Not surprisingly, the central image of Theophany is that of water. In the Scriptures, water is a powerful symbol, being referred to over 600 times in a wide variety of contexts. The feast of Theophany, in which God Himself enters into the waters of the Jordan, is the culmination of the meaning of water throughout the Bible.
For the people of the ancient Near East, water had a dual significance. Primarily, it was a primordial and destructive element. God created the world as a kind of “bubble” of order and life in the midst of the waters. The sky was a solid dome above which were “the waters above the heavens.” (Genesis 1:6-7) The earth rested upon the waters, on pillars sunk into the deep. (see Psalm 136:6 and 1 Samuel 2:8) And waters encircled the world, raging at its boundaries. (Job 38:8-11)
According to the Scriptures, God’s hand held back the waters, which allowed His good creation to continue existing in peace and order. However, when God wanted to chastise His people, to remind them of what things would be like without Him, He allowed the waters to cover the world again. The most prominent example, of course, is the Great Flood that only Noah, his family and his ark of living creatures survived.
In addition, we hear Jonah using water as a metaphor for God’s punishment of his disobedience: “For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all Your waves and Your billows passed over me.” (Jonah 2:3) And the Psalmist echoes a similar sentiment: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” (Psalm 69:1-2)
Water, then, is the scriptural image of what happens where God withdraws His hand from us. In a broader sense, it represents all of our human sufferings, those parts of our life that are uncertain, messy, difficult, frustrating; those circumstances that do not go as expected or wanted, that lie beyond our control, that defy our attempts to make them submit, to come to order or conform to our expectations. The waters symbolize those events that disturb us, upset us, or shake us up.
But if, in the Scriptures, the waters embody primeval chaos, destruction and death—humanity without God’s providential care—then they are also the source of life for the world. In the creation account, the waters brought forth “swarms of living creatures.” (Genesis 1:20) As the divine Gardener, God uses the waters to bring life to plants and animals. (Psalm 104: 12-16) Water gushing from the rock at Meribah sustained the people of Israel in the wilderness. (Exodus 17:7) In the Scriptures, water is death and water is life, both at the same time.
This dual significance of water in the Scriptures is fulfilled in the incarnation and baptism of Christ. On one hand, Christ descends into the waters of a world separated from God, submitting Himself to suffering and death out of love for humanity. On the other hand, the waters become the wellspring of eternal life when Jesus emerges and is revealed as the beloved Son of God (Matt. 3:17) who would rise from the dead and deliver creation from the forces of eternal destruction.
In the end, the theological point of Theophany is simple: the sufferings and sorrows of human life are the very wellsprings where God appears to us and embraces us. Far from being a distant deity, cold and unfeeling, God comes to share and transform and redeem the messes and pains of our world from the inside out, loving us so much that He enters the bitter waters of our human life, transforming it with the sweetness of His divinity.