In the cold peak of winter (it’s going to be in the 40’s and 50’s here in South Texas which is about the peak of winter here, so you’ll have to imagine someplace else) the Church celebrates the Theophany – the Baptism of Our Lord and Saviour. January 6th is the date of Theophany under the New Caledar (Gregorian). In the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran denominations, this day is more commonly known as Epiphany and is remembered for the visit of the Magi. Dia del Reyes or the Day of the Three Kings is a big deal around here and other Catholic, Spanish-speaking (or French-speaking) areas.
Whichever calendar you use, as a new convert to Orthodoxy years ago I thought it was a little disjointed for the Church to put the feast of Theophany, an event that didn’t occur in Christ’s life for another 30 years, as the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas. The visit of the Magi just chronologically seemed to fit, considering we celebrated the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st, the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and the murder of the Holy Innocents. It just seems to wrap things up so neatly. It’s not that Orthodoxy doesn’t venerate the Magi, it’s just that the Theophany is the feast that most climaxes Christ’s appearance in the world. It took me a long time, and it still feels a little odd when Theophany comes along, but I understand the greater meaning the Church was trying to convey. In the west Christmas has been turned into a big Nativity play while sometimes forgetting the overall cohesiveness of Christ’s incarnation and manifestation to the world. For that reason, the Church celebrates historical events in their theological context, not only as an historical series of events but events with a common theme. If you then were trying to group the events of the Incarnation you have to go back nine months then to the Annunciation. According to OrthodoxWiki
Originally, there was just one Christian feast of the shining forth of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Wisemen, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Easter and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival, in this case the Feast of Lights.
The most central feature of Theophany involves water. It is a feast of Jesus’ baptism in water, the prototype of our Baptism as Christians. The liturgical music for this date mentions water a million times, the Church performs the Great Blessing of Water, and the faithful immediately drink the blessed water, annoint themselves with it, take home jugs of blessed water to drink throughout the year and pour over their ailing bodies whenever illness strikes. The priest blesses our homes with this water, even our cars, livestock, places of work. But one of the oddest of traditions that some people don’t even realize are associated with Theophany, are the ice swims or polar bear jumps. Maybe people have been doing this for millenia. First as a post-sauna ritual, then as a stunt. It’s popularity has spread world-wide and every news crew and newspaper has to run photos of swimsuit-clad or bizarrely decorated, obviously freezing nuts jumping into swimming pools and lakes, oceans and ponds. However, leave it to the Orthodox Church and in particular, the Russians/Ukrainians to give it an association with one of the great feasts of the Church. Surely only the promise of spiritual blessings could make a person jump into freezing waters that are doing their best to kill you. (They don’t have paramedics at these things for dramatic effect you know.) For a warmer celebration of Theophany I’d prefer the Greek Orthodox Church’s Theophany dive at Tarpon Springs, Florida; but you’ll notice it’s only young men doing the diving.
If you’d really like to read a much more edifying post on the meaning of Theophany than my rambling nonsense, please visit one of my favorite priest bloggers, Fr. Stephen at Glory to God for all Things.