The Incarnation of Jesus, Calendars, and Theophany

Not long before Christmas, my daughter shared an unusual story from her daily activities at school. She discovered that one of her fellow classmates is also Eastern Orthodox, and they were comparing Christmas traditions. She asked me if it was really true that the “real” Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7, as her classmate allegedly claimed that January 7 is Serbian Orthodox Christmas, and those who celebrate on December 25 are not actually Orthodox.

Her story ignited my memory of my personal past. My entire childhood was one of two Christmases. December 24 and 25 were family affairs, with feasting and gift-opening, and all of the excitement of gifts appearing under the tree. This Christmas was a temporary preview of the main event to come – “Ukrainian” Christmas on January 6 and 7, a solemn event featuring a vigil, a meal with odd foods on Christmas Eve, and a liturgy followed by caroling and my beloved pyroshki on January 7. My parents arranged for my brother and me to be excused from class on January 7, and in a few lucky years, on January 8, to continue feasting and caroling at the parish rectory housing my grandparents.

The solemnity of a January Christmas felt normal to me, so I did not notice the exchanges of “Happy New Year” on January 14. By the time Theophany rolled around on January 19 (we abbreviated it to “Jordan”), we were re-immersed in the busyness of school and the frigid Minnesota winters. Christmas was the highlight; Theophany was just another byzantine feast (forgive the pun) that required bringing jars to fill with holy water, to be brought home for the blessing of the house.

The debate on the real Christmas exposes two issues worthy of commentary. The first concerns the use of two calendars among the Orthodox Churches. The second pertains to the solemnity of Theophany. Both issues have implications for ecumenical relations among Christians.

“Old” vs. “New”: An Unresolved Dispute

 My daughter’s story about the calendar and “Serbian” Christmas reveals an unresolved dispute among the Orthodox Churches. Orthodox people are well aware of divisions within the Church on observing the “old” (Julian) calendar versus the “new” (Gregorian) one. The issue originates from an Orthodox congress in 1923 that discussed the possibility of adopting the new calendar. Some Orthodox Churches did not participate in the Congress, including the Serbian Church. The result of the discussion was that some of the Orthodox Churches eventually adopted the new calendar, and some remained on the old. The Churches did not agree on a unified course of action at the Congress – the decisions to adopt the new or remain with the old took place afterwards.

Almost all of the Orthodox churches observe the same method for calculating the date of Pascha, with the exception of the Church in Finland.

The result of these diverse calendars in the world of Orthodoxy is confusing. Many Churches that observe the “other” calendar remain in communion with one another. This odd situation was perhaps most visible a year ago, when the newly-elected Metropolian Epifaniy of Kyiv concelebrated Theophany with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul on January 6. Epifaniy received the tomos of autocephaly on behalf of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine on the same day from Bartholomew. Epifaniy returned home to Kyiv, to celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Was the inversion of incarnational feasts overcome by the gesture of Eucharistic unity? A positive point of view features Eucharistic unity overcoming other differences, including the preference for a calendar. This perspective claims that Eucharistic unity can accommodate diverse traditions within the Church.    

A critical perspective highlights a move toward calendrical unity as a step towards Eucharistic union between Christians of East and West. If all Orthodox eventually adopt the Gregorian calendar for the cycle of fixed feasts, Christians worldwide will celebrate the ancient solemnities on the same date. It would seem that such a move would be logical for Orthodox, since their secular calendars are already on the Gregorian calendar, and recognize December 25 as national holidays (at least in some cases).

The debate on calculating the date for Easter/Pascha is at a standstill. Many scholars point out that the Western method of calculation is more faithful to the edict of the Council of Nicea, but the Orthodox remain united in their preference for the Paschal status quo.

Alternative route: ecumenical unity and the blessing of waters

There are numerous opportunities to revive ecumenical dialogue and feature Christian unity over division. I present a common, ecumenical celebration of the blessing of waters on Theophany as one possible way forward.

The Eastern Christian observance of Theophany differs considerably from its Western sibling. Eastern Christians gather at the church at the Theophany feasts of January 5 and 6, with the people eagerly waiting to draw near to and touch the sanctified water.

The center of the feast is an elaborate rite known as the “Great Blessing of Waters.” This rite includes a long prayer asking Christ himself to enter the waters, “now as then,” and sanctify them. Those who “partake” of the waters – note the metaphor of communion here – receive “cleansing of soul and body,” healing of passions, and protection from demons and disease. The people drink from it, anoint themselves with it, and ask the priest to sprinkle them with the blessed water, over and over again.

In cold climates, Orthodox people wash in the icy cold waters blessed on Theophany, in a type of “Orthodox ice bucket challenge.”

Cosmology is a major theme of the euchology and hymnography of the feast. Jesus’ appearance and his entrance into the Jordan bring the entire cosmos into a single space. As the people sing and partake, the angels and archangels wonder at Christ’s humility; the waters draw back at the presence of the almighty one; and the people marvel that the creator of humankind condescends to receive baptism from the hand of one his own creatures, John.

Theophany: An Ecumenical Burst of Good News

Theophany is a burst of good news. God is with us, and all of creation joins humankind in joyful praise and thanksgiving. Each fountain and source of water becomes the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit makes Jesus present in our local sources of water, “now as then.”

The people’s eagerness to receive the sanctified water reveals the fundamental human desire to pursue and cling to life. Everyone needs water to live, and God provides that water.

Theophany is also a reminder that water is God’s gift – it is not a commodity to be hoarded and wasted by the wealthy of the world. The festal euchology and hymns recount dozens of instances of God saving humankind through water. Water never fails – water is God’s most faithful servant. The Theophany feast calls upon Christians to give thanks to God by becoming servants of creation, sustaining and sharing it justly, and renouncing the practice of commodifying water.

There are plenty of reasons to pause before participating in an ecumenical rite. Canons prohibit it; taboos discourage it; maybe we should wait until all of our doctrinal differences are resolved.

Doctrinal differences cannot contain the burst of good news announced by Theophany: God is with us, and the entire cosmos rejoices and is redeemed, including creation. Perhaps somewhere in this world, Christians will seize the moment and identify the Theophany blessing of waters as a solemnity that celebrates Christian unity, and has the capacity to contribute to the healing of the world.   

5 comments

  1. I can only shudder in anxious resignation about how I could explain this to our Lutheran community (the conservative, now bi-polar on things liturgical LCMS) who would be mystified that folks “do such things”, and didn’t Luther do away with all of this……..sigh. I am teary-eyed in imaginating this beauty of such a rite.

    1. Pastor Dave, Forget the Lutherans, a lot of Romans would go apoplectic if they saw (and heard) the Theophany rites. After all, much of what is contained in them, their reality, ritual, repetition, and symbolism, were not only reformed away in the 16th century, but again in the 1960s. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany) just doesn’t have the same appeal or importance in the west that it does in the east. And to water down the ritual, excuse the pun, to not offend liturgical sensibilities of ecumenical partners would render the entire feast and its rites ineffective and pointless.

      1. Could you briefly describe what reforms happened in the 16th century and/or provide information on where I can find more information?

  2. Sorry Devin–I didn’t clearly say what I meant. The rites of the Great Blessing of Water didn’t change, what changed was the theological and liturgical praxis of much of the west beginning in the 16th century at the Protestant reformation.

  3. The thirty or so inhabitants of the isle of Foula in the Shetlands still observe Christmas on 6 January according to the Julian calendar. (Something happened in 1900 or so to set them one day off from other Julian observers.) They are proud of their observance of this date and evidently feel kinship with Holy Russia and other followers of the Julian date although they themselves are good Presbyterians.

    Now, if I could only find western observers of Armenian in the Holy Land Christmas!

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