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The origins and spirituality of the Epiphany

30 November, 1999

Epiphany is a solemnity or major feast celebrated on 6th January, though – since the reform of the liturgical calendar – it is now marked by many Catholic churches on the Sunday between the 2nd and 8th January, where 6th January is not a holy day of obligation. Patrick Duffy looks at the origins and different themes of this feast in the Eastern and Western Churches.

Difference in West and East
Nowadays in the West the feast goes by the name Epiphany and celebrates the visit of the Magi and while in the East it is called Theophany and celebrates the appearance of God at the Baptism of Jesus.
The word epiphany
The word epiphany was used in Greek religion to indicate the appearance or manifestation of a god or goddess in human form along with the suggestion that the person or persons who had the epiphany would be delivered from danger and/or their enemies defeated.  Theophany is a less frequently used word meaning the same thing. In the New Testament epiphany is used to refer to both the first and the final comings of Jesus (Titus 2:11, 13). The word then came to be used of the miracles of Jesus as manifesting divine power.

Origin in the East: a plurality of themes
As a Christian celebration on 6th January the feast is first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria around 215 AD. He mentions the Basilidians, a gnostic Christian group, commemorating the baptism of Jesus on that day (PG 8:885).

A pagan feast of the sun-god was already celebrated in Egypt for the winter solstice on 6th January. On the previous night, the pagans of Alexandria commemorated the birth of their god Aeon, supposedly born of a virgin. They also believed that on this night the waters of rivers, especially the Nile, acquired miraculous powers and even turned into wine. It is possible that such beliefs could have prompted the addition of the themes of the birth of Jesus and the miracle of Cana to the Christian feast.

But by the fourth century AD the feast in the East had acquired a combination of four themes – Jesus’ birth, his baptism, the miracle of Cana and the coming of the Magi. St Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (315-402) says that 6th January is “the day of Jesus’ birth, that is, of his epiphany” (PG 41:935-940), but he also mentions the miracle of Cana and the Magi. Probably because of the multivalency of the term “epiphany”, it easily gathered a multiplicity of themes.

At Antioch in Syria St John Chrysostom is witness that the narratives of the epiphany feast there included the birth, the Magi, and the baptism (PG 46:363). The Apostolic Constitutions, which may also reflect Antiochene usage, say “slaves should not work on the festival of Epiphany because on it came to pass the manifestation of the divinity of Christ – at the baptism”(8:33.7).

One visitor from the West, the monk John Cassian tells us that at the time of his travels in Egypt (418-427) the monasteries there celebrated both the nativity and the baptism on 6th January (PL 49:820).

A second visitor from the West, the aristocratic lady Egeria, who describes the Jerusalem liturgy around 385 AD, tells of a celebration of 6th January and its octave. This involves a procession of people, monks and the bishop going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and although a folio is missing there is no mention either of the baptism or of Cana (Itinerarium, 25). So this procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem indicates a feast devoted exclusively to the birth of Jesus on 6th January.

Epiphany in the West: the visit of the Magi
The Jesuit writer Cyril Martindale was probably quite accurate when writing of Epiphany in the West, he says:

…about the time of the diffusion of the December celebration (of Christmas) in the East, the West took up the Oriental January feast (of Epiphany), retaining all its chief characteristics, though attaching overwhelming importance, as time went on, to the apparition to the Magi” (“Epiphany” in The Catholic Encyclopedia [1909] 5:506).

A plurality of themes in the West early on seems to have given way to concentration on the single theme of the Magi. This is evident from Bishop Philastrius of Brescia (d. 397) writing his Catalogue of Heresies around 383. 
He says that certain heretics:

  1. refuse to celebrate the Epiphany regarding it as a needless duplication of the Natitivity feast, and
  2. think this dies epiphaniorum (= “day of epiphanies” – note the plural) is “the day of the baptism or of the transformation which occurred on the mountain”.

He goes on to lay down the law for orthodox belief – that there is only one proper narrative for the feast, namely, the visit of the Magi.

The sermons of St Augustine (PL 38:1026-39) and Pope St Leo I (PL 54:234-263) show that by the middle of the fifth century in North Africa and in the West, with 25th December accepted as the birth of Christ in both East and West, the Epiphany feast had been pared down to a single theme – the visit of the Magi as narrated in Matthew 2:1-12.

Epiphany liturgy and spirituality today: The Mass
The Mass texts for the Epiphany in the Roman Missal today remain focused on the visit of the Magi. The Opening Prayer highlights the imagery of the light and the star.

Let us pray
[that we will be guided by the light of faith].

you revealed your Son to the nations by the guidance of a star.
Lead us to your glory in heaven by the light of faith.

The first reading Isaiah 60:1-6 with its mention of “bringing gold and incense” and the responsorial psalm (71:11): “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord” are Old Testament texts seen as fulfilled in the adoration of the Magi. Indeed, while the emphasis is on the Magi, some also see a strongly missionary (“all nations”) thrust to the choice of texts.

Epiphany liturgy and spirituality today: The Liturgy of the Hours
However, a plurality of themes, reminiscent of the feast’s oriental and baptismal origins, is quite strongly asserted in the Liturgy of the Hours of Epiphany. In the Antiphon for the Canticle at Morning Prayer (Benedictus), the theme of the marriage feast of Cana is elaborated into the espousals of Christ and his Church to which the Magi bring gifts.

Today the bridegroom claims his bride, the Church,
since Christ has washed away her sins in Jordan’s waters;
the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding;
and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine,

In the Antiphon for the Canticle for Evening Prayer (Magnificat), three themes – the Magi, the baptism and the Cana miracle – are also interwoven:

Three mysteries mark this holy day:
today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ;
today water is turned into wine for the wedding feast;
today Christ is baptised by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

Popular customs related to Epiphany: In the East
Eastern Churches all seem to have a blessing of water ritual associated with their Epiphany/Theophany feast and today Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian or an updated Julian calendar all seem to follow this tradition. Those who follow the original Julian calendar, like the Russian Orthodox, have the Nativity on 7th January and the Baptism of the Lord twelve days later, 19th January.

Antonius of Piacenza (c.570 AD) in his Itinerarium 11-12 (PL 72:903-4) tells us of a blessing of the Jordan river, at which there seem to have been baptisms, a blessing of boats as well as a general plunge of all the participants in the river at the end. This blessing continues to the present day.

Popular customs related to Epiphany: In the West
The West tried to make some connection with the Eastern and baptismal origins of the feast when in 1969 the Roman Liturgical Calendar was revised. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord was brought in on the Sunday after the Epiphany and is supposed to close the season of Christmastide (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar 14-2-1969. no. 38). But it can hardly be said to find a suitable cultural context here at this time of year.

However, many countries in the West have popular celebrations of “The Three Kings”.  A Christian tradition in the West said to derive from an early 6th century Greek manuscript in Alexandria gives them the names of Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Another tradition holds that their relics are in Cologne where they are called the three kings of Cologne. The story is that their bodies were brought to Constantinople by St Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and from there to Milan and finally to Cologne in 1162 by Frederick Barbarossa.

In Germany and central Europe a custom of house-blessing takes place. It begins on the evening of 5th January when dried herbs are burnt and their scent fills the building. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house writes with chalk above the house and barn doors the initials of the three kings enclosed within the year (20 C  M  B 07). According to the ritual he says: “Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water.”) Church officials, however, say it stands for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ bless this home).

In Spanish-speaking countries, “The Three Kings” receive wish-letters from children and magically bring them gifts on the night before the Epiphany travelling more or less like a Santa Claus. And children prepare drinks for them, much as children in north Europe do for Santa Claus.

Similar customs surround the feast in Italy where La Befana is the kindly old witch who brings children toys on the night of 5th January. According to the legend, the Three Wise Men stopped at the Befana’s hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and invited her to join them. She refused, and later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child. Again she refused, and when night fell she saw a great light in the skies. La Befana thought perhaps she should have gone with the Three Wise Men, so she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own child, who had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But la Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. Since she cannot find him, she leaves gifts for the children of Italy and pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal) for the bad ones.

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