Except for Easter and Pentecost, the Solemnity of the Epiphany is the oldest of all Christian festivals, one that originated in the Eastern Churches beginning between the second and fourth centuries. Epiphany means to reveal, show or manifest; Christ is revealed.
“The name of the feast, Epiphany, shows that the intention in the East was to celebrate the coming of the Lord into this world. For in Greek the word Epiphany was used to describe the ‘appearance’ of a god among men, and also for the visit of some ruler to a city,” writes Josef A. Jungmann in his book “Public Worship: A Survey” (Liturgical Press). The feast initially celebrated four events in Christ’s life, events that manifested his royal kingship: the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan and the wedding at Cana. All were celebrated on Jan. 6 and at first only in the East.
Early in the fourth century, the Eastern Epiphany celebration included Christ’s birth, but that was not true in the West. According to Dom Gueranger — a French Benedictine who wrote “The Liturgical Year,” which covers in 15 volumes the Catholic Church’s liturgical cycle — in the year 376, the Western Church assigned Dec. 25 as the birth date of Jesus. The exact date of Christ’s birth is unknown, and the December date may have been selected to replace a pagan holiday.
The Epiphany was not celebrated in the West until later in the fourth century, which was around the time that the Eastern Church accepted Dec. 25 as the date of Christmas. So, in the early Church the feast of the Epiphany spread from East to West and the date of Christmas from West to East.
Christmas vs. Epiphany
By the fifth century, in both the Eastern and Western Churches, the Holy See had established the Epiphany and Nativity celebrations as separate dates on the Church calendar. This action did not diminish the importance of either feast; connected by the Christmas octave, these liturgical celebrations are so closely associated that it is like the Epiphany is an extension of or a second Christmas.
In the Eastern Church today, the Dec. 25 Christmas celebration includes the visit of the Magi. But in the Roman Church, the arrival of these mysterious men is not celebrated until Jan. 6, the Epiphany. In many Western parishes, the figurines of the Magi are not added to the Christmas crèche until that day when the Magi were instrumental in revealing the newborn Jesus to the world.
|What do the Gospels say?
Across the four Gospels, there are certain events that are consistent, such as the feeding of the 5,000 and the scenes regarding the Passion. Another such event is the Baptism in the Jordan. The main message is clear across all four texts: The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father speaks from the heavens, claiming Jesus as his son.
Interestingly, the language in three of the four Gospels is nearly identical. In Matthew’s account, the voice from heaven says, “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:17). In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the words are not directed at the crowd but at Jesus himself: “‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:11, Lk 3:22).
The fourth Gospel, John’s account, is written from a different perspective. In this case, John the Baptist, fulfilling his role as prophet, tells the crowd: “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’” (Jn 1:32-34).
The Magi resided in Persia some 1,000 or more miles from the site of Christ’s birth; they saw a new star in the heavens and recognized that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had been born. The Magi were Gentiles, and God graced these non-Jews with the awareness of the virgin birth. This most miraculous event was not confined to Israel, to one nation, or people. The news of “great joy” was recognized beyond Judea, beyond the shepherds standing the night-watch in the Bethlehem fields. Interestingly, among the Israelites only the shepherds initially knew of this epiphany.
Representing all mankind, the Magi left their homes and made the journey to Jerusalem seeking the new king (c.f. Mt 2:1-2). The people in Jerusalem and Bethlehem must have been both amazed and confused. They were strangers, non-Jews traveling for months to honor a Jewish king that most in Palestine knew nothing about.
The Magi found the King of the Jews, the King of Kings, not in some royal court but sleeping in a manger, a place for animals. Transformed by God, the Magi were the first-ever adorers, indeed the first converts. According to St. John Chrysostom, “The Magi were the first from the Gentiles chosen for salvation, so that through them a door might be opened to all Gentiles.” These men from Persia never overshadow the Lord; rather they serve to identify who he is.
The Jan. 6 feast of the Epiphany in the Roman church also acknowledges the baptism and the wedding at Cana: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation” (Liturgy of the Hours, Evening Prayer II, Epiphany). Still, the baptism and wedding at Cana manifestations of Christ are individually commemorated on other liturgical calendar dates. In 2019, the baptism is celebrated on Jan. 13 and the wedding at Cana on Jan. 20.
Signs: Baptism, wedding
St. John Chrysostom explains the baptism of Christ as an epiphany: “We give the name the Epiphany to the Lord’s baptism because he was not made manifest to all when he was born, but only when he was baptized, for until that time he was unknown to the people at large.”
Each of the Gospel writers reveal this most glorious event. They all depict the presence of the Blessed Trinity at the river Jordan: God the Father speaks from heaven, “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:17). God the Son is baptized and God the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove. The baptism, proclaimed by God, heralds the beginning of Jesus’ public life and the world will never be the same.
|Blessing of Homes on Epiphany
An annual Epiphany tradition beginning in the Middle Ages is the blessing of homes on or near the feast day. In a special prayer ceremony, a priest using blessed chalk and holy water writes, 20 C+M+B 19 above the entrance into a home. The number 2019 is of course the year; CMB is abbreviation for Christus Masionem Benedicat, or, may “Christ bless this house.” Those letters are also the initials of the three Magi, believed to be named Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. The plus signs represent the cross. Through these markings on their homes, Christians visibly manifest and steadfastly proclaim the kingship of the Lord. A baptized lay person (CCC, No. 1669) can perform such a blessing if no priest is available. The Catholic Household Book of Blessings and Prayers
(USCCB, $24.95) provides prayers for the ceremony, as does the Book of Blessings
(Liturgical Press, Abridged Edition $29.95).
In John’s Gospel, the divinity of Jesus is revealed through a series of miracles that St. John calls signs. They begin at the wedding in Cana, to which Jesus, his mother and several disciples were invited. During the wedding, the host ran out of wine. It is here that Jesus works the first miracle of his public life: taking the water used for ceremonial washings, Jesus, using his divine power, turns it into wine. John writes, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him” (Jn 2:11). At Cana, the divinity of Jesus is manifested to the public, including his disciples.
In many countries, Epiphany is a holy day of obligation and commemorated on Jan. 6. In the U.S., the feast is moved to and celebrated on a Sunday between Jan. 2-8. No matter when or where celebrated, this feast calls us to manifest the glory of Jesus by a holy life, and the way we work, pray and worship.
D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.