Blessing the Waters

20170116_113258Given my general focus on typology on this blog, I thought it apropos to say something about the typology evident in the Orthodox feast of Holy Theophany (our parish’s patronal feast), or Christ’s baptism. Today our family made the trek with many others from our parish to the continental divide at Monarch Pass to participate in the blessing of the waters that traditionally follows the feast. It was rather cold and blustery, but a blessing that extends to both sides of the continent. The water blessing typically takes place on the day of the feast, but we delayed this particular event to make it easier for more to attend.

A glimpse of the magnitude interdependence between the two Testaments can be experienced through even a cursory examination of the feast of Holy Theophany, since so many Old Testament types foreshadow baptism. Saint Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism sets the stage for the blessing of the waters following the Divine Liturgy. Leading up to the blessing, prophecies from the book of Isaiah proclaim the coming of the Messianic age, repeatedly employing the imagery of water satiating the thirst of that which is dry, transforming deserts into oases.

Immediately before the enactment of the blessing, we encounter four Old Testament types prefiguring the baptism of our Lord.

You are our God, who drowned sin in the waters at the time of Noah.

You are our God, who in the sea, and at the hands of Moses, delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh.

You are our God who cleaved the rock in the wilderness, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed, and your thirsty people were satisfied.

You are our God who, with fire and water and at the hands of Elijah, delivered Israel from the errors of Baal.1

These verses awaken the memory of the previous night’s services (usually) incorporating Old Testament passages that illustrate some of these and other types in detail. For instance, excerpts from Exodus 14 portray the miraculous Israelite crossing of the sea and the devastating destruction of their Egyptian pursuers in the waters of the sea, clearly in agreement with Saint Gregory’s typology in The Life of Moses. The story of the Prophet Elias defeating the prophets of Baal is conveyed through the reading of 1 Kings 18:30-39.2

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-3-00-54-pmDuring these evening services, the reality of Theophany is explicitly connected with the events described in these ancient Scriptures by the Apostle Paul:

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Recalling the day’s Liturgical Epistle reading of Titus 2:11-14, we learn of the consequences of Theophany. God came to earth so “that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” It seems that the Old Testament foretells the event, the Gospel narrates the event itself, while the Epistle exposes the outcome.3

Finally, when the celebrant enacts the blessing upon the water, he immerses the Cross into the water three times (ok, ours was snow), evoking the reading of Exodus 15 from the previous evening telling the story of the waters of Marah. The wood that sweetened the waters of Marah clearly foreshadows the wood of the cross and the cleansing of the water in Christ’s baptism. But the act also typifies Christ’s baptism and unites the types and their antetype into a single physical action, immersing the participants in a direct experiential encounter with the reality.

The Church, in the troparion of the feast and in the icon of the feast, elucidates the ultimate revelation of Theophany. The Trinity, which we saw foreshadowed in Elijah’s threefold baptism of his sacrifice, is fully apprehended in both the icon and the Troparion, clearly portraying the Gospel event. The icon depicts the glory of the Father sending down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to Christ who stands in the Jordan, the river parted so many times by Christ himself. The troparion makes the understanding explicit:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee his Beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.4

In this feast Old Testament passages are used in multiple ways. We experience prophecy or promise, as in the Prophecies of Isaiah, pointing to the fulfillment in the Baptism of Christ and in our own baptisms in Christ. We also experience the antetype through a rich portrayal of Old Testament types, partly in the words of the blessing itself, but more fully in the prior evening’s services. Gospel passages portray the antetype itself and Epistle readings explicitly connect the types with their antetype in order to provide clarity. The Epistle readings also help to explain the consequences of Theophany. Finally, all are united experientially in the liturgical action of the blessing of the waters and in the depiction of the event in the Holy Icon.

The Gospel seems to be the vortex around which all other scriptures swirl. The event of Theophany impacts both the past and the future, sending ripples in all directions through the fabric of space-time. The experience of the feast itself is outside of time and we experience it through direct participation.


1 John Sanidopoulos, “The Theophany Sanctification Prayer of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem”, Mystagogy: The Weblog of John Sanidopoulos (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/01/theophany-sanctification-prayer-of-st.html) .

2 “Readings for Theophany – January 6”, Byzantine Catholic Church in America (http://www.byzcath.org/etc/Theophany_Readings.pdf) .

3 Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Epiphany”, in The Orthodox Faith: Volume II – Worship (http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/epiphany) .

4 Ibid.

The Ark: Typological Development

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Iconography in the Apse of Holy Theophany Church in Colorado Springs.

We are beginning to wrap up our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. We have covered many concrete examples and are now embarking on some analysis of what we have learned.

We have traced how the people of God have understood the ark from its very beginning to its contemporary expression within the Church. We have examined how the Ark was built and we followed its life in Israel up until its disappearance. Subsequently, we examined possible midrashic traditions latent in Scripture that typologically identify the Ark with the Holy Virgin. We examined so-called apocryphal literature that provides useful clues. We traced the great conversation of the Holy Fathers on this topic through the first seven centuries. And finally, we examined the expression of the Ark’s typology in the life of the Church: its iconography, services, and hymnology.

In this particular case study, and perhaps others, we find a distinct pattern. First, the subject of typological interest comes into existence. In our case, the Ark is explicitly “spec’d out” by God himself and is then constructed under the guidance of the Prophet Moses. The Ark gains a certain mystique throughout its developing life among the people of Israel, becoming a key emblem or meme in the mythos of the nation of Israel. Whether we are talking about a physical artifact such as the Ark or a story such as Abraham’s hospitality to his three visitors (a topic for an upcoming series of posts), the type follows this same path.

The next step is the Gospel. Saint Paul alludes to the application of forward looking typology to the Old Testament, saying, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). In our specific case, it is affirmed by Saint John Damascene as noted earlier. The Gospel becomes the lens that we use to interpret the ancient types, but the interpretation does not necessarily become clear immediately, as in our case.

Clearly, given the fact that accounts of the Gospel and other contemporaneous events were recorded significantly later, either an oral tradition or long lost documents carry the stories forward in time until they are written down. Interpretations may grow organically within this mix, as hypothesized by Laurentin and others, influencing the recording of Scripture and other writings.

We begin to truly see the application of typology surface in the writings of the Holy Fathers, where it develops through the centuries. As the present author might observe from a similar study of the typology attached to the story of the Hospitality of Abraham, a turning point in the application of the typology seems to sometimes occur during the third or fourth centuries. It is probably not coincidental that this was a time of great upheaval and development within the church, owing to the occurrence of many heresies and the refining of doctrinal articulation that was carried out by the great ecumenical councils. In our case we see a transition from a clearly Christocentric typology of the Ark to its identification with the Holy Virgin Mary (the shift seems to happen somewhere between Saint Dionysius and Saint Athanasius). While both typological traditions may have coexisted from very early times, the Church shifted emphasis from one to the other as its understanding deepened.

The title Theotokos is not truly rooted in Mariology, but in Christology. It does honor to the Theotokos by recognizing her role in the incarnation, but she is called the God Bearer not due to her own nature, but because of the nature of her son. The ecumenical councils sought to clarify the nature of Jesus Christ and this clarification shone light also upon the role of Mary, which may have influenced how the Church viewed the typology of Mary and of the Ark.

After the conciliar age, the typology seems to stabilize and we see it becoming part of Orthodox praxis in the services of the Church as described above. Iconography finally incorporates the typology and we not only hear it in the hymnology, but see it on the walls of the church. In the end, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.

Here we have discussed the implications of theological/typological development within the church. In our next post in this series, we will discussion the implications of the fully developed typology.

The Ark: Infancy Gospel of James

In our previous post, we diverged into a discussion of what typology is and why it matters. Here we return to the topic at hand, the Ark of the Covenant. Both this and the next post in this series will consider works that are sometimes called “apocrypha.” The Orthodox Church does not attach the same stigma to apocryphal works that many protestant traditions have, and while not part of the canon of scripture, many are still considered worthy of study.

The Infancy Gospel of James (this link to the work itself is a quick and interesting read), sometimes called the Protoevangelion of James, is an apocryphal gospel, likely from the second century, that was never accorded canonical status;1 which is not to say that it isn’t a document that has been valued in the Orthodox Church up until the present. This gospel demonstrates that the events celebrated by the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos were present in a very early tradition. We will discuss this feast, which continues to be celebrated annually by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, in a later post.

This gospel tells the story of the infancy and childhood of Mary the Mother of God. Of importance to the topic at hand are some allusions to her entrance into the Holy of Holies in the temple. The gospel tells how, at the age of three, her parents, Joachim and Anna, took her to the temple to be dedicated as a virgin to the service of God just as Hannah took the Prophet Samuel to the temple. The high priest received her, recognizing that the Lord would reveal His redemption through her. He placed her on the third step of the altar where she “danced with her feet.” In the gospel Mary is said to have been, “nurtured in the Holy of Holies, and received food from the hand of an angel.”2

(Some might wonder about having a girl in the temple, but the Scriptures themselves tell of the prophetess Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” Luke 2:37 OSB).

What is striking is that, as we saw earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was no longer in the temple at this time, so the Holy of Holies was essentially empty when Mary entered it. Given this sequence of events, it would be unremarkable if readers of this gospel were to infer that the Holy Virgin had come at the appropriate time to replace the Ark of the Covenant as the dwelling place of God. While this gospel is certainly not explicit about such typology, it is compatible with the hypothetical existence of such a tradition in the second century, just as we found previously that there was enough potential allusion in the New Testament to allow for the theoretical existence of such an early tradition.

In the next post we will discuss the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the Infancy Gospel, you can certainly follow the link above, but Frederica Matthewes-Greene has published a rather nice edition with her own commentary entitled, The Lost Gospel of Mary.


1 George Reid, Apocrypha, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907).

2 Frederica Matthewes-Greene, The Lost Gospel of Mary, (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), P. 55.

Ark of the Covenant in the New Testament

In part 2 of this series, we talked about the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Here we stroll into more ambiguous territory and attempt to find connections in places where they are not explicit. We focus on typological reference to the Ark. This part of the study is based on modern scholarship rather than on Biblical or Patristic sources. It’s far from certain, but still worthy of discussion. As mentioned at the beginning of this series, the Ark is often connected typologically to the virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant.

While the typology of the Ark is not directly mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, there exist several possible allusions that are worth discussing. A midrashic approach, exemplified by Fr. René Laurentin, attempts to find an intentional anamnesis embedded in Luke’s infancy narrative, intended to connect it with the Old Testament theme of God being present in the bosom of his people. First emerging in Exodus 33:3 and 34:9, it is developed throughout the Old Testament narrative, which progressively establishes the Ark as the epicenter of God’s presence in Israel.1

Fr. René finds numerous interesting textual parallels between Luke’s language and Ark-related imagery in the Old Testament. For instance, when God takes up residence in Israel, his glory overshadows the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35) just as the power of God overshadows the Holy Virgin as described by Gabriel during the Annunciation (Luke 1:35). In another case he compares David’s transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:2-11) with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:33-44).2

Fr. René surmises that Luke identified the events portrayed in his infancy narrative with the eschatological fulfillment of this theme as proclaimed by the Prophet Zephaniah. In this prophecy, the Daughter of Zion is thought to be the Holy Virgin and it is here that the typology of both the Ark and the Daughter of Zion converge, as we see God present in the bosom of His people:3

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Be glad and rejoice with your whole heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing (Zephaniah 3:14, 17).

A less ambiguous example is the Visitation narrative found in Luke 1:39-44. Elizabeth exclaims, “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:43)? This parallels David’s question, “In what possible way can the ark of the Lord come with me” (2 Samuel 6:9)? Similarly, Mary remains in the house of Elizabeth for three months just as the Ark remained in the house of Obededom for three months.4

Many in the Roman Catholic church find a connection between the Ark described at the end of chapter eleven of Revelation and the woman described in the beginning of chapter twelve. Chapter divisions were not present at the time of writing, so the two figures would have been seen tightly juxtaposed by earlier readers. Most of the Holy Fathers see this woman as a figure of the Church, but Cardinal John Henry Newman does not believe this precludes the woman from representing the Theotokos. He explains,

Now I do not deny of course that under the image of the Woman, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the object of veneration of all the faithful.5

In part 4, we’ll take a brief interlude from the topic at hand and discuss typology and why it matters.


François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five Years of Research (1950-2005), (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), p. 182-185.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, <Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers 2000>, p. 50.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, Modern History Sourcebook: John Henry Newman On the Blessed Virgin Mary, <15 March 2016>.