The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance.” It is used for the event of Christ’s baptism because it was in the Jordan, being baptized by John the Forerunner, that Jesus appeared to the world and manifested Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity.
The Lord’s first public appearance takes place at His baptism for very good reason. Baptism is the symbol of death and resurrection; Christ came to the earth in order to die and be raised. Baptism is a symbol of repentance of sin, and its forgiveness; Christ came as the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sin of the world in order to take it away. Baptism is a symbol of sanctification; Christ has come to sanctify the whole of creation. Baptism is a symbol, finally, of radical renewal. When one is baptized the old is over and the new has come. And Christ has appeared on earth to bring all things to an end, and to make all things new. The act of baptism, therefore, contains in symbol the entire mystery of Christ, the whole purpose of His coming…
The baptism of John was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The people came to John for baptism “confessing their sins” (Mk 1:4-5). The Lord Jesus had no need of repentance. As God’s Son in human flesh He committed no sin. His baptism, therefore, manifests His complete identification with His sinful creatures. He literally becomes one of us, not only in our humanity, but in our sinfulness; not only in our life on earth, but also in our death. For as the apostle Paul has written, ‘For our sake He [God the Father] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
In the Church’s celebration of the Lord’s Epiphany in the Jordan, the faithful are enabled to see Jesus made like them in every respect, entering the waters to identify with their fallen condition in order to bring it to an end and to create them anew for life in the kingdom of God. They become convinced through this liturgical experience that He is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who has come to save the world.
Excerpt from The Winter Pascha by Fr. Thomas Hopko (SVOTS ’63), St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.