How to have an Epiphany

Three Theophanies

We have come to the time after the two great feasts of light in the midst of the darkness of winter. Each year, when the nights are long but beginning to shorten, when much of the land lies hidden under snow, two great lights shine in the darkness, and much that was hidden is revealed. I’m speaking of Christmas – the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ – and Theophany – the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Really, both of these feasts are theophanies – because, what is a theophany? A theophany is a manifestation of God. It is God revealing himself to us – making himself known to us. “The Lord is God, and he has given us light” (Psalm 117/118:27). Theophany is a light shining in the darkness, a revelation of what was hidden.

Until the nativity of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God was hidden. God had already taken on our human nature in the womb of his mother. God first becomes a zygote, then an embryo, then a fetus. But as such he is hidden in the womb of his mother Mary. Only she and Joseph, and John and Elizabeth, know who Jesus is in the womb. Yes, Mary did know that her “baby boy is the Lord of all creation” and “would one day rule the nations.”[1] The archangel Gabriel had revealed it to her and Joseph. And John was a prophet even before he was born and so he recognized the Lord.

But all this was like a secret hidden in Mary’s womb. God was already incarnate from the moment of his conception, but he was hidden in the warm darkness of her womb until his nativity. And so, his nativity is a theophany of the incarnate God. Christ is born! God made man is revealed to all! Mary and Joseph see him for the first time with their eyes of flesh, though with their eyes of faith they already knew who it was who was dwelling within her and in our world. Angels announce the birth to local shepherds, who come to the cave and see God in the flesh in the manger. A star reveals to distant Persian astrologers that our new King and Lord is born. The whole world experiences this theophany. God is manifested to the world. Even animals see God in their manger. All creation experiences this theophany – this light shining in the darkness.

“God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

Years pass. The adolescence and youth of Jesus pass. We know almost nothing about these years. They are sometimes called his hidden years. He who first hid in the womb of his mother, then hides in Egypt from the wrath of Herod, and then hides in the obscurity of Nazareth. But that which was hidden will be revealed at Theophany – that is, at the time of his baptism.

Jesus comes again to John. He first approached John while they were both unborn and John, being a prophet of God most high, recognized Jesus even then. By leaping in his mother’s womb, he proclaims to his mother that the unborn Jesus Christ is Lord (Luke 1:41-43). Now again seeing Jesus coming to him when they are both men, he proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Now, this proclamation is heard by all. Whereas before, only his mother Elizabeth could feel and understand his hidden prophetic leap. Now, theophany! The Lamb of God is revealed to all. But still more and greater things are revealed this day.

God is always Trinity. Before Abraham ever was, Jesus is. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The word of God who is God is before all ages. And God is always Trinity.

In the beginning, God created. The ru’ach of God moved over the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light (Gen 1:1-3). There already is the father, the creator, and the ru’ach, the breath, the wind, the spirit of God, and the speech, the word, the son of God.

And God said let us make man in our image and after our likeness (Gen 1:26). God is always a plurality of persons, always Trinity and one God, always three and one.

But this truth of God was hidden. It was not known to the Jews. It was not known even to Moses. The author of Genesis, who wrote these words in which we see the Trinity, did not know that God was Trinity. He did not understand his own words in that way. He did not understand them as we understand them. Because we have experienced the theophany of the Trinity. Our eyes have been opened to see the Holy Spirit and the Word of God who is God where before they were not recognized.

And it is in the River Jordan when John baptizes Jesus that worship of the Trinity is revealed. The Father’s voice bears witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, calling him his beloved Son, and again the Spirit moves over the face of the waters. The Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon him over the River Jordan.[2] The Trinity is revealed to the world by this second theophany, this second feast of light shining in the darkness.

Now, today, after these two feasts of light, Christ begins to preach for the first time, and his preaching fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy, that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and that “for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned” (Matt 4:16).  His preaching enlightens us, gives light to our eyes enabling us to see the kingdom of heaven among us in the midst of this present seeming darkness. His preaching is like a third theophany. If we will receive it, it manifests God to us, enables us to experience theophany – the epiphany that God is with us.

Here is what Jesus preaches: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17).

This preaching is a light shining in the darkness.

Maybe we tend to prefer the second part of this proclamation: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But the preaching of Jesus teaches us that the key to that kingdom is repentance. We sit in darkness and the shadow of death as long as we wallow in our sins. Only when we repent do we see the great light. The real reality –underneath our experience of darkness – is that this – here and now – is the Heavenly Kingdom. This is the kingdom now. We’re already experiencing it, to the extent that we repent. God is with us – not only will be, but is. He has been with us all along and through it all, but unless we repent, his presence is hidden to us. Our eyes are darkened. Repentance opens our eyes. It is the key to our own theophany – God’s theophany to us personally, his self-manifestation, his self-revelation to us. Without repentance, our eyes are too blind to see the truth of Christ’s presence in everything and everyone. Therefore, let us repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

[1] Mark Lowry, Mary, Did You Know? (1991).

[2] cf. Troparion for Theophany

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Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, and a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma. He is the administrator of St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Church in Allen Park, Michigan. He is also a lifelong painter, particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He has been blogging since 2007: Blog of the Dormition

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