In this month of January we will celebrate Epiphany. What is Epiphany? Well here is the simple explanation: Epiphany is January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. In the Western churches, Epiphany Day, has marked the observance of the arrival of the wise men. In the earliest Christian traditions, maintained by the Eastern churches, the day began a period that celebrated the incarnation and baptism of Christ. So you say you need a little more explanation, I thought you would say that so here we go.
Epiphany (from the Greek epiphaneia) means “manifestation from above,” that is, “divine revelation.” Epiphany primarily involves the manifestation of God in Christ, Christ being manifested as the Son of God and God as the Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In the Eastern church Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist as the event of the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God and its involvement as the manifestation of God in Trinity, and also as the event that marks the beginning of Christ’s saving mission. In the Western Church Epiphany celebrates the worship of the newborn Christ by the wise Oriental Magi as the event that marks the manifestation of the divinity of Christ to the “nations.” Especially since medieval times, Western Christianity developed an elaborate tradition around these Oriental figures; fixing their number to three and identifying them with three kings, called Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar ; a tradition that included the re-discovery of their bodies at the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan (1158), where they had been transferred from Constantinople in the 4th century, and their re-transference and deposition in Cologne Cathedral by Frederick Barbarossa (1164).
Biblical Scholars tell us that in the Christian East, Epiphany is the oldest celebration of the Lord next to Easter, and was always celebrated on the 6th of January. The first reference to Epiphany is found in Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century AD. If Easter marked the climax of the saving work of Christ, Epiphany marked the disclosure of the divine person of Christ who opened up the mystery of God and initiated the process of man’s salvation.
Originally Epiphany commemorated the Baptism of Christ, his Birth being at best included unreservedly. St. John Chrysostom explains the reasons for being so. “Why is not the day on which Christ was born called Epiphany, but the day on which he was baptized? Because he was not manifested to all when he was born, but when he was baptized” (Hom. 24 On the Baptism of Christ). In some places, however, not only the Birth but also some additional events from the life of Christ were included in the celebration of Epiphany (e.g. Christ’s first miracle at Cana).
What is particularly interesting to observe is that in the early Christian centuries the eve of Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost (and Christmas later on) were the solemn occasions of Christian initiation through Baptism. The remnant of this practice is today the singing of the Baptismal Hymn in the Divine Liturgy celebrated on these days.
It was in the fourth century that the Birth of Christ began to be commemorated as a separate celebration or fast on the 25th of December leaving Epiphany focused on Christ’s Baptism and celebrated on the 6th of January as it is still today. There is evidence that the Feast of Christmas as a separate Feast was first introduced in Rome (around 335) and was gradually adopted by the Eastern Churches (from 376 onwards).
Why was the 6th of January chosen for Epiphany, and, why was the 25th of December introduced for the Birth of Christ later on? Biblical Scholars furnish various answers. One of them tells us that according to the old Egyptian calendar the 6th of January was the day of the winter solstice, a major day of religious celebration for pagans. Some pagans (especially the Egyptians) celebrated on this day the conquest of winter darkness by the invincible god-sun. Others celebrated the appearance and glorification of the god-emperor in a city (especially the Romans).
Christians, who acknowledged Christ as “the sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2) and the “light of the world” (John 1:9 and 8:12), replaced the worship of the pagan god-sun and the glorification of the god-emperor by the worship of Christ. Later on the new Roman calendar placed the winter solstice on the 25th of December and provided the occasion for another pagan celebration. Christians found the occasion to introduce a new Feast, Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, who is Emmanuel, God with us.
What is important to observe here is that the natural phenomenon of the ‘conquest’ of winter darkness by the sun ceased to be seen as being divine, or as a sign of the appearance of a deified human leader. Instead, it became an occasion for celebrating the manifestation of the true God as man, conquering the darkness of ignorance and sin that led humanity to become alienated from the true God and to worship the creation rather than the Creator.
Scholars tell us that the origins of the Epiphany in the West are rather obscure. There is a consensus that Epiphany was first introduced in the Western Church from the East in the fourth century about the same time as the new Feast of Christmas took root in the Rome.
Epiphany was first established in the West in places that had special connections with the East, such as Gaul, Spain and Upper Italy, where it retained an Eastern content, commemorating the Birth and the Baptism of Christ, plus other events. These traditions were changed as the authority of Rome increased over them, because Rome followed another tradition.
Epiphany was also observed in Rome, commemorating at first the Birth and the Baptism of Christ, but here it came to be primarily associated with the visit of the wise Magi to Bethlehem, especially after the establishment of Christmas on the 25th of December.
So, Epiphany is the day and season in the church year when we patiently watch and listen as God is quietly revealed before us once again. Sometimes, even when we try hard to do so, we just don't see God in our everyday lives, or in the events of our world. Epiphany gives us the time and the resources to watch, wait, listen, look, and anticipate the light, life, and truth of the Lord's presence in our midst. As I said before during Epiphany we celebrate the coming of the Wise men, with gifts for the Christ child, and the baptism of Jesus. Then Epiphany concludes with the Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany is the time when the church gathers to remember and reflect upon the mighty acts of God in the birth of Jesus Christ.
As we watch and wait in the light of Christ, we begin to see the unfolding drama of the Christ child becoming prophet, healer, teacher, and savior. Much of the story is still to be told, but already we are being reminded of the direction in which this one sacred life is moving. Here was life at its very purest and very best. Life that had come from God was walking with God and was going to God (John 13:1). This life enlightened us as we remember that we to have come from God, are invited to walk with God, and one day will be fully at home with God. So take the time to meditate on this life enlighten to us in this season of Epiphany.
Peace and grace