The feast whose season we now in is called “Theophany” or (in many places) “Epiphany”. This latter is not so much an English word as it is a transliteration of a Greek word, epiphaneia. It is often rendered “appearance” in the English versions, though this rendering can be misleading. One can have a small or insignificant appearance. For example, a person can have a brief cameo appearance in a movie (such as Alfred Hitchcock famously did in his movies), appearances so brief and insignificant as to be missed by inattentive eyes.
But there is no such thing as an insignificant epiphaneia. The word is cognate with the verb epiphaino, meaning to shine forth brilliantly (compare its use in Acts 27:20 where it describes the sun and stars). In secular literature at the time of St. Paul, it was used of the glory of the visiting emperor. The arrival of the emperor (in Greek, his parousia) at a city was the occasion for him manifesting his glory and appearing in all his power. He arrived with chariots and horses, with slaves and a glorious retinue, with the sound of trumpets and the waving of banners. At that time he displayed himself and entered the city noisily, his arrival and presence there were celebrated with feasting and the bestowal of favours. All present strained to catch a glimpse of him in his golden robes and shining splendour.
This was the imperial and kingly epiphaneia. St. Paul uses that royal vocabulary to describe the Second Coming. At that time Christ will arrive and put an end to the Antichrist “by the epiphaneia of His parousia”, the appearance of His Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Christians are taught to wait for this day, described by St. Paul as “the epiphaneia of our Lord Jesus Christ” and as “the blessed hope and the epiphaneia of the glory of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 6:14, Titus 2:13). An epiphaneia is always full of splendour and glory.
It is perhaps all the stranger that the word is used by the Church to describe the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. At that day there were no courtiers blowing trumpets or waving banners, no soldiers on horses, no glorious chariotry. There was no one wearing splendid vestments, no gold or silver shining in the sun. Instead of magnificent soldiers there were humble sinners—tax collectors, prostitutes, and drunkards, broken and damaged people, all of them coming not with shouts of adulation, but with tears.
And there stood John, wading out into the middle of the Jordan and waiting in the waist high water. There came to him the crowds, wading through the cold water to find him so that he could place his hand on their heads and dunk them under, washing away their hot tears beneath the cold waters of the Jordan.
And then there came Jesus, wading out with the others, standing between tax collectors and prostitutes as He would later hang between two thieves, humbly awaiting immersion like the others. When John saw Him, he was surprised, for in that crowd Jesus stuck out like a sore thumb. When John expressed his surprise, suggesting He was in the wrong place, Jesus insisted: “Let it be so, for this is how we are to fulfill all righteousness”—“righteousness” of course being code for God’s righteous faithfulness to His promise to bring in the Kingdom of God.
After Jesus waded out of the river, He stood dripping wet, praying on the riverbank. And then the world faded for a moment from John’s sight as he had a vision, something seen by John alone. God had told him that he would recognize the Messiah whose way he was preparing by this sign: “He on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).
In John’s vision, the heavens split open and the Spirit, seen in his vision as a dove, descended and remained upon his cousin Jesus, and John heard a voice declaring, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased”. Now John knew: Jesus was the Messiah, the One whose way he had been preparing.
Note that this event which the Church calls the epiphaneia of the Messianic King was attended by no such worldly pomp as attended a worldly imperial epiphaneia. When the world’s true King came, He came in humility.
What does all this mean for us? It means that we celebrate and adorn our King’s epiphaneia not as the world celebrates the epiphaneia of the mighty, but in a way consistent with our King. In the world, when the rich and powerful reveal themselves and manifest their glory, it is celebrated and adorned with pomp and adulation. All dress in evening gowns and tuxedos, and travel in limousines to lavish parties where the rich are praised with speeches and showered with compliments. All return home afterward, rewarded and well-fed, having made the rich and powerful, the celebrities and CEOs, secure and smug in their position and their self-righteousness. That is how the world adorns the epiphaneia of the kings and Kardashians.
It is otherwise with those who adorn the epiphaneia of the true King. Those who would reflect the glory of the King must walk as He walked.
The King Himself said so. On the last night of His earthly life, He was having His final supper with His disciples. In that culture it was the task of the household slave (or, in the absence of such, of the youngest member of the family) to wash the feet of guests when they arrived. None of the Twelve wanted to undertake this task, since they were possibly thinking of gaining for themselves the highest positions of power in the earthly Kingdom they imagined was about to come and did not want to disqualify themselves by admitting the others were more important and deserving than themselves. So it was that none of them undertook this task. It was the Lord Himself who, to their scandal and dismay, laid aside His garments, girded Himself with a towel and knelt to wash their feet.
When He had concluded this lowly and servile task, He asked His thunderstruck disciples if they understood what had just happened. In answer He said, “You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and you so well, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet for I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:13-15). The lesson was a crucial one: when Peter protested, he was told, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (v. 8)—in other words, such humility was an essential part of discipleship. A proud and arrogant disciple of Jesus was a contradiction in terms.
This is what St. Paul meant when he instructed us that we should give ourselves to lowly tasks (Romans 12:16). Instead of asking ourselves, “Is this task in keeping with my position and dignity?”, we should rather ask, “Does this task need doing?”, and if it does, we should do it—quietly, simply, and without fanfare. If our work merits praise, the Lord will bestow it upon us on the Last Day.
When the Lord waded into the Jordan and stood among sinners, and when He knelt at the feet of each of His disciples doing the work of a slave, He liberated us all from suffocating concern with our own precious dignity. We never stand taller than when we kneel with the King. Slavery to Him is our perfect freedom. It is how we adorn His epiphaneia.