Theophany is the baptismal feast of feasts. It announces and celebrates as much about our own baptism as it does that of Christ. Both Scripture and the Church Fathers bear witness to the fact that our “illumination” becomes a reality only insofar as it enables us to participate in Christ’s own baptism and in the life and works that flowed forth from it.
The feast proclaims two interrelated yet apparently contradictory themes: the death of believers, and their new birth to eternal life. As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 6, our true death occurs as we enter the baptismal waters. There we “die” with Christ, in order to be raised with him into a new mode of existence. “We have been buried with him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we also might walk in newness of life” (6:4). The sacramental grace conferred by baptism, and not our physical, biological demise, thus marks our true death. It signifies and accomplishes our dying to the “old Adam” and our rebirth as the “new man,” in the image of the crucified and resurrected “Second Adam,” the eternal Son of God (cf.1 Cor 15:45-49).
At the same time, as Jesus affirms in John 3, baptism is a “new birth,” a “birth from above” (the term anôthen signifies both “again” and “from on high”; this is what leads to Nicodemus’ confusion in John 3:4). Paul expresses the same idea in Titus 3:5 with the term palingenesia, “rebirth” or “regeneration.” Baptism through water accomplishes the washing away of sins, incorporation into the Body of the glorified Christ, the Church, and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
In their discussions of baptism, the Church Fathers often shaped their statements so as to combat various forms of heresy. Against those who favored “rebaptism,” they argued that there is (as affirmed by the Church’s Creeds) “one baptism” only. St John of Damascus, for example, takes up the statement in Hebrews 6:6 to insist that a person who is “rebaptized” in fact re-crucifies Christ! (On the Orthodox Faith, IV.9) Against those who perform the ritual using other than traditional Trinitarian imagery, he insists that baptism rests uniquely upon the name of the Trinity: a true baptismal epiklesis or invocation of divine power requires the threefold name of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Which explains why Orthodox practice cannot accept other formulations, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” or other politically correct images current today. Baptism in any name other than that of the Holy Trinity is not a true “baptism,” an incorporation into the personal reality of God as he is in his innermost being. Those who submitted themselves to a ritual that uses non-Trinitarian names need therefore to be baptized (for the first time) according to the prescripts of Holy Tradition (beginning with the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19), in order to enter fully into the Church and its Eucharistic communion.
The relationship between water and Spirit is seen by the Church’s theologians as linking creation with baptism. The first chapter of Genesis declares that God brought all things from non-being into being by his Word. This initial, stupendous act, was fulfilled by the Spirit “moving across the face of the waters.” In the “new creation” of baptism the catechumen descends into the waters to “die” and be “co-buried” with Christ. Yet this gesture is only fulfilled by chrismation, anointing as the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” which makes us “christs,” anointed ones. As the Spirit descended visibly upon Jesus and dwelt within him from the time of his baptism (John 1:32-33), so this same Spirit is bestowed upon the newly baptized and chrismated children of God, to dwell within them, and to purify and sanctify them in their pilgrimage toward the Kingdom.
Baptism, though, confers not only the Holy Spirit. The Fathers also affirm that through baptism “the Lord is in us,” united to us and we to him, as Bride and Bridegroom. Thus the ritual also signifies a sacred marriage, a nuptial union, as proclaimed in Ephesians 5. In the words of St Mark the Ascetic, “at baptism, Christ comes to live at the altar of the heart.” In his work on Orthodox Spirituality, Fr Dumitru Staniloe transposes this affirmation onto a mystical plane, declaring that “at baptism [Jesus] is in me, a supreme kenosis” (p. 227). Baptism confers not only the Spirit, it also creates a union between the believer and the Son. The Father sends both the Son and the Spirit to dwell within and to sanctify those who submit themselves to rebirth, in faith and in love. And thereby the Father fulfills the work of what St Irenaeus of Lyon called “his two Hands.”
Finally, the Fathers affirm, baptism sets us on the pathway toward “deification.” It creates the conditions—ecclesial and eucharistic—by which those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit can pass through the ascetic stages of purification and illumination, to arrive at last at union with and communion in the God of love.
Baptism, however, can only be realized in the life of a person insofar as he or she accepts to make that pilgrimage with a certain ascetic discipline that focuses on repentance. St Peter of Damascus (11th-12th c. ?), St Symeon the New Theologian and many others, make the point repeatedly that baptismal renewal demands asceticism, a gradual dying with Christ. This they see achieved through a purification of the passions by the keeping of God’s commandments. Baptismal grace remains hidden in the heart, St Symeon insists, until it is activated by the energy of the Holy Spirit (Practical and Theological Texts, 74ff). This suggests that acquisition of that grace requires a “synergy,” cooperation between God and the human person, in which God takes the initiative but we respond with faith, obedience, and a relentless struggle against our innermost impulses that make us rebel against the divine will and reject divine mercy.
The baptismal pilgrimage, and the struggle it entails, is summed up in a remarkable passage by the fourteenth century spiritual master, St Gregory of Sinai. The pathway of the baptized Christian is conceived as reproducing the various stages of Christ’s own earthly life:
“Everyone baptized into Christ should pass progressively through all the stages of Christ’s own life, for in baptism he receives the power so to progress, and through the commandments he can discover and learn how to accomplish such progression. To Christ’s conception corresponds the foretaste of the gift of the Holy Spirit, to His nativity the actual experience of joyousness, to His baptism the cleansing force of the fire of the Spirit, to His transfiguration the contemplation of divine light, to His crucifixion the dying to all things, to His burial the indwelling of divine love in the heart, to His resurrection the soul’s life-quickening resurrection, and to His ascension divine ecstasy and the transport of the intellect into God.”
This passage, as clearly as any other, makes the point that baptism is not merely a ritual of initiation, a liturgical “passport” into the life of the Church. Nor does it involve a mere “imitation” of Christ’s own baptism and the events of his life.
As the work of the “two Hands of the Father” in the life of the believer and the entire community of the faithful, baptism offers us actual participation in Christ’s own death, resurrection and glorification. It offers, in the fullest sense, eternal communion in his divine life.
 “Further Texts,” The Philokalia IV (London, Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 253.