A Reflection on Theophany

Canadian Orthodox Messenger

A Reflection on Theophany

by Esther Juce

During the Feast of Theophany, January 6th, it is good to remember that Christ not only descended into the baptismal waters of the Jordan, but by doing so also descended to the bleak and arid desolation of our fallen human condition, into the wilderness of a parched land where no water is.

It might seem curious that in John's Gospel, Jesus' penultimate word on the cross, "I thirst", should fulfill Scripture, for St. John writes, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst’.” (Jn 19:28) How is this sentence, “I thirst” a fulfillment of Scripture?

If the case were simply that this action had been foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures, John would have said this directly. To illustrate this, in verse 24, the Beloved Disciple clearly states that the behaviour of the soldiers is predicted in Ps 21/22:19/18, and even cites the verse: “They said therefore among themselves, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,’ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots. Therefore, the soldiers did these things.” (See John 19:24.) Interestingly, the very same Psalm 21/22, David's most famous and chilling description of suffering, also alludes to thirst: “I am poured out like water;…My strength is dried up like an earthen vessel; My tongue cleaves to my throat; And you led me into the dust of death” (Psalm 21/22:15-16/14-15). Yet St. John does not use this line in his chapter 19.

To add to the mystery, the Fourth Evangelist uses two different verbs in his description of Christ on the Cross, both of which are translated into English as "fulfilled". In John 19:24, it says, “that the Scripture might be fulfilled (πληρωθῇ - “plirothi”)”. The verb plirothi is related to the Greek noun pleroma, or “that which fills” in English. Thus, this verb suggests being made full or complete. In contrast, in verse 28 reads, “that the Scripture might be fulfilled (τελειωθῇ - “teleiothi”).” Here, the Evangelist employs the verb teleiothi, coming from the noun teleios which means “perfection”, which in turn is close to the noun telos, or “end” or “consummation”. Indeed, the entire passage of John 19:28-30 is end-oriented and perfection-oriented. This can be seen in the use of tetelestai, a different form of the same verb, which is translated "accomplished" or “finished.” This word is found in this passage in identical forms twice: first by the narrator in verse 28, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished (τετέλεσται – “tetelestai”)”; and second in verse 30 by Christ Himself as His final word on the cross, “It is finished (τετέλεσται – “tetelestai”)”. Is there perhaps a different dynamic at play here? Is this more than simply a confirmation that the Hebrew scriptures are fulfilled by Christ?

Here is a possible scenario: The Lord God formed us, and put us in the Garden to tend it and keep it. (Gen.2:8,15). But we disobeyed Him, (Gen. 3:11), trusting the serpent more than the Lord God, and wanting to be like God without the Him being involved (Gen.3:6); we separated ourselves from the beauty of the Garden of Eden and from the love and presence of the Lord.

Then "...God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son...God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (Jn 3:16-17) So, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." (Jn1:14) In becoming flesh, the Son, "knowing all things that would come upon Him," (Jn 18:4) took upon Himself the pain and thorns and death of our expulsion from the Garden of the Lord God. (Gen.3:16-24) Jesus, the I Am (Jn 18:6,8), in the garden near the Brook Kidron (Jn 18:1), allowed Himself to be betrayed (Jn 18:2,3,5). He allowed Himself to be sentenced (Jn 19:11) and to be crucified (Jn 19:16-18). By this, His profound humility, Jesus entered completely into the desolation and the arid wilderness of our human fallenness, into the consequences of our self-imposed expulsion from Paradise.

By being lifted up onto the Tree, Jesus sweetened the bitterness of our fallen state, as did the tree which Moses cast into the bitter waters of Marah in the wilderness to make sweet the water for the children of Israel. (Ex.15:25) This sweet water is the living water that the Lord offered the Samaritan woman so that she would never thirst again. And, the water would "become...a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life." (Jn.4:14)

Thus, Jesus, the Lord, offers His living water of Paradise to us as a remedy to the barrenness of the parched land in which we have chosen to dwell. Jesus makes this possible because on the Cross, He has traversed the length and breadth of our forsaken wilderness. As He reached the end of His sojourn in our desert, He even assumes our fallen thirst, our misplaced and broken desire that expelled us from the Garden in the first place; He is gasping His penultimate word, “I thirst.”

What, then, is our reaction? In our fallenness, we offer our Saviour sour wine, vinegar that chokes Him and that burns His throat. (Jn.19:29) The Lord's response to our wickedness is one of love: He receives and accepts our offering, cruel and hideous though it is. (Jn.19:30) "Knowing that all things were now accomplished" (Jn 19:28), Jesus then breathes His final word, “It is finished”, and gives up His Spirit. (Jn.19:30).

To conclude, the word "I thirst" may be much more than a simple nod to the clairvoyance of a particular Psalm verse. Rather, this phrase may well be a sign of the culmination of our entire salvation history, made possible by our Saviour's profound love and humility on the Cross.

During this season of Theophany, we remember that Jesus humbles Himself by being baptized by John in the Jordan “to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt.3:15). By this baptism, He sanctifies all the waters of creation. Like Joshua of old, Jesus, by and through the waters, leads us into The Promised Land, the Paradise from which we had expelled ourselves. Christ, by His Passion, by His word, offers to us the Living Water, so that we will never again have to say, “I thirst.”