Saturday, January 4, 2020

Dragons in the Water: Hymns of the Forefeast of Theophany

Christmas is a wonderful time to be a medievalist. It's really the only time of year that society at large, however faintly, takes an interest in old songs and old traditions. Ours was a very liturgical Advent and Christmas, and it's only now that I find myself with time to sit down and write again (though I've done a bit of fiction writing over the holidays--but I don't usually post that here).

Before I get on with the subject of today's post, I wanted to go ahead and drop one small note about another project I'm working on: The Cave Dwellers Podcast. The Cave Dwellers has the potential to morph into something more as the year wears on, but for now it's simply a place for my daily narrations of my attempt to read through the complete works of Plato (spurious dialogues included) in a year.  Since we're only 3 days into the read (it's only weekdays; you get weekends off) it's not too late to join me. By "narration," I mean a simple-yet-effective technique used in Classical Education/Charlotte Mason Education circles of telling back information in my own words in order to synthesize it. Anyway, I'll be doing that for the rest of the year, in case you want to follow along.

Now, about those dragons.


Monday (January 6) is the Feast of Theophany in the Eastern Rite (usually known as Epiphany in the West, where the focus of the feast is slightly different). This is one of the ancient Church's great feasts of light, along with The Nativity (Christmas) and the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas, aka Groundhog Day). After Easter, it's the most ancient of the Great Feasts, with the practice of keeping vigil all night before the feast day dating back at least to 140 AD. Alas, it's little known or celebrated in modern times outside of Orthodox and Catholic circles.

The Byzantine hymnography and iconography for this feast yields some rich examples of the traditional understanding of the feast in reference to ancient paganism, Old Testament typology, and the use of paradox which seems to be a defining note of Eastern Rite hymnography.

Fresco of the Theophany, St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX

Consider this Doxastichon (a special kind of hymn sung between the "Glory to the Father... Both now and ever..." following the chanting of Psalm 129 (LXX) during Vespers) of the Forefeast of Theophany:
Make ready, O river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in thy waters. Rejoice, O wilderness of Jordan; dance with gladness, O ye mountains. For the eternal Life hath come to call back Adam. O voice that criest in the wilderness, O John the Forerunner, cry out: 'Prepare ye the ways of the Lord, make his paths straight.'
The reference here to "dragons in thy waters" might seem curious to modern ears, and downright puzzling to anyone who goes to any of the four Gospel accounts of Christ's baptism looking for any dragons in the story. This is not a scriptural reference, but rather a memory the Church's tradition preserved, through her hymns and iconography, until its source was recently discovered by modern archaeologists. As Fr. Stephen De Young points out in an article published this time last year, this reference to dragons or monsters in the water (present in almost all of the icons of the feast as well) refers to the ancient Semitic sea and river gods Yam and Nahar, whose subjugation to YHWH is an important part of both the Exodus narrative, but also to much of the later Hebrew prophetic works (see Isaiah 27). The Hebrew scriptures presented a direct challenge to the sacred stories of rival religions in the Levant (such as the Baal Epic), and for centuries before the modern rediscovery of Ugarit and the Baal Cycle, that challenge continues to inform the liturgical hymns and iconography of this feast.

Icon of the Theophany

And then there's this wonderful bit of juxtaposition from yet another Doxastichon, this one coming at the end of Psalm 92 (LXX) during Vespers:
Let the desert of Jordan rejoice exceedingly and blossom as the lily. For the voice of one who crieth hath been heard within it: 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord.' For he who weighed the mountains in scales and the wooded valleys in a balance, who fillest all things as God, is baptized by a servant. he who bestoweth rich gifts hath now become poor. Eve was once told, 'In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,' but now the Virgin hears: 'Hail, thou who art full of grace, the Lord who hath great mercy is with thee.'
Look at the contrasts here: A desert blooms; the one who weighed the mountains is baptized by a servant; the one who gives gifts is now poor; Eve's sorrow replaced by Mary's joy. This last contrast hints at one of the most important ideas of Theophany, its origins found as early as the writings of St Paul in the New Testament (see Galatians 3:27 and traditional understandings thereof): Christ's baptism is, in some sense, a re-creation of humanity (or at least enables the re-creation of human persons through their baptism). This is developed beautifully in the Troparion and Kontakion of the forefeast:
Prepare, O Zebulon, and adorn yourself, O Naphtali; River Jordan, cease flowing and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. Adam, rejoice with our First Mother and do not hide yourself as you did of old in Paradise; for having seen you naked, He has appeared to clothe you with the first garment. Christ has appeared to renew all creation.
Today the Lord enters the Jordan and cries out to John: “Do not be afraid to baptize me. For I have come to save Adam, the first-formed man.”
The "first garment" seems to be a reference to a very ancient tradition found in Rabbinical sources, as well as the Syriac Peshitta, of "garments of light" (perhaps a way of describing the unmarred imago dei in which they were made) in which Adam and Eve had been clothed before the fall. Fourth century Church father and poet St. Ephraim the Syrian vividly imagines Christ as having left the "garment of light" for us in the water during his baptism; by being baptized ourselves, we follow him down into the water and put on the garment of light (one might say, of righteousness) which he has left for us.

Finally, consider this imagined dialogue between Christ and the Baptist, sung at Matins on the eve of the feast:
Christ: Why dost thou doubt, O Baptist, concerning the dispensation that I fulfill for the salvation of all? Set now aside the old and think of the new. Believe in God who has come down to earth, and drawing near, obey me. For I have come as God, to cleanse in my compassion fallen Adam. 
John: Taking our sins upon thy shoulders, thou art come, O Jesus, to the streams of Jordan: and I am afraid at thy dread coming. How, then, dost thou bid me baptize thee? Thou thyself hast come to cleanse me, and how dost thou, the Cleanser of all, seek baptism of me? 
Christ: My nature is beyond understanding: but clothed in the form of a servant have I come forth to Jordan. Doubt not at all concerning me. Come, fear not, draw near me. Place thy right hand upon my head and cry aloud, 'Blessed art thou, our God made manifest: glory to thee.' 
John: Beyond all thought and without measure is thy poverty, O Word of God! I know that, for my sake who am fallen, thou has from pity clothed thyself in Adam, and all the posterity of Adam thou makest new again. Obeying thy command I cry to thee in faith, blessed art thou, our god made manifest: glory to thee!
All of the hymns of this wonderful, ancient feast, encourage us to dance with the mystery rather than define it. In the Gospels, Christ rather cryptically tells the Baptist that He must be baptized in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). These ancient hymns, which document the Church's lived-out experience of Theophany, help us examine these mysterious words from a variety of perspectives largely lost to modern interpreters of Scripture.

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