When Christ went down into the water, not only did He carry us down with Him and make us clean, but He also made clean the nature of the waters themselves. As the troparion of the forefeast puts it, ‘Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters’. The feast of Theophany has thus a cosmic aspect. The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God’s creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a ‘lair of dragons’. Christ came on earth to redeem not only man, but—through man—the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation our rebirth in the font, He likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace.
This idea that the waters were a ‘lair of dragons’ is especially interesting to me, due in no small part to the whole legendary status of dragons. Metropolitan Hierotheos writes that ‘according to St John of Damaskos, Christ was baptised in order to crush the heads of the dragons in the water, for there was a conception that the demons dwell in the water’ (Metropolitan Hierotheos [Vlachos] of Nafpaktos, The feasts of the Lord: An introduction to the twelve feasts and Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003], p. 102).
Most especially, it calls to my mind the great Old English poem, Beowulf. In the episode of Beowulf’s descent into the ‘mere’ to fight Grendel's mother (ll. 1422-1631), many readers have seen echoes of Christ’s baptism and the harrowing of Hell, as well as the baptism of all Christian faithful. According to Howell Chickering’s translation (Howell D. Chickering, Jr., ed. and trans., Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition [NY: Anchor, 1989], p. 131), when Beowulf and his men tracked Grendel's mother to the mere—
They saw strange serpents,
dragonish shapes, swimming through the water.
Water-beasts, too, lay curled on the cliff-shelves,
that often slither off at dark daybreak
to attend men’s sorrow upon the sail-roads,
sea-beasts and serpents. (ll. 1425-30)
Quoting from the Latin prayers of blessing said for new baptismal water on Holy Saturday, M.B. McNamee points out:
To an audience familiar with this symbolic meaning of immersion into and emersion from waters infested by the powers of hell and purified by the powers of God, it would have been natural to see in Beowulf’s descent into the serpent-infested mere and his triumphant ascent from those waters purified of their serpents a symbolic representation of the death and burial and of the resurrection of Christ, and, in the purification of the waters, a symbol of the redemption of man from the poisonous powers of evil. (M.B. McNamee, SJ, ‘Beowulf—An Allegory of Salvation?’, An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. Lewis E. Nicholson [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1963], pp. 340-1)
Even the motif of light that we find in the texts of the Theophany services—the last sticheron from Vespers for the feast reads, ‘Thou . . . hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things’ (Menaion, p. 339)—is echoed in the poem. In his article on the parallels between Beowulf and baptism (‘Beowulf and the Liturgy’, Nicholson, p. 223-32), Allen Cabaniss has called attention (on p. 224) to the ‘beam of preternatural light' in ll. 1570-2:
Then the cave-light shone out, a gleam from within,
even as from heaven comes the shining light
of God’s candle. (Chickering, pp. 139, 141)
Of course, it’s too bad that it is Grendel's mother and not the dragon himself that is killed in the mere. But still, the connection with baptism, and especially, to me, with Theophany, seems rather striking. I shall close with the final stanza, the 18th, of St Romanos’s full Kontakion for the feast (from St Romanos the Melodist, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem [Lash] [San Francisco: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. 47):
At the divine command, Zachary’s offspring raises his mind on high,
and stretching out his palm places it on the King,
washes in the streams, then leads back to land the Lord of land and sky,
whom the One who cried, ‘This is my beloved Son’
pointed out from heaven by a voice as by a finger.
To the Father himself then and to the Son
who was baptized and to his Spirit I cry,
‘Crush those who afflict my soul;
end my errors, my Redeemer,
the unapproachable Light.'