On the 6th of January Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians celebrated the great Feast of Epiphany (Western) or Theophany (Eastern). This Feast introduced a new period of liturgical celebration, which is still with us – a celebration that goes right back to Christian beginnings and opens up the meaning of the Christian faith and tradition.
Epiphany (from the Greek epiphaneia) means “manifestation from above,” that is, “divine revelation.” The Christian feast of the Epiphany primarily entails 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.
What is the basis of this manifestation? Or, putting it otherwise, what is the basic event (or events) that lies at the root of this divine manifestation (Theophany)? Today’s practices of Eastern and Western Christianity appear to give different answers to the above questions. How different are they?
The Eastern Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist or “Forerunner” (in Greek Prodromos) as the event of the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God and its corollary, the manifestation of God in Trinity, and also as the event that marks the beginning of Christ’s saving mission. This is particularly revealed in the service of the Great Sanctification of the Waters (Megas Agiasmos), which is reminiscent of Christ’s Baptism and constitutes a conspicuous feature of the Eastern celebration.
The Western Epiphany celebrates the veneration 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).
This divergence naturally raises a number of questions, both historical and theological, to which liturgists have provided various answers. Above all it raises the question whether it implies any contradiction? I believe that there is no contradiction here, because both celebrations lead to the same over-arching truth: the divine manifestation of Christ and its corollary, the divine manifestation of the One God in Trinity.
On the other hand, it must be said that the way the two traditions relate Epiphany to the other Great Feasts of the liturgical year suggests a difference of approach to the mystery of Christ and the salvation he bears. The Eastern tradition links Epiphany to Christ’s saving mission and looks to Pascha and Pentecost as its final and saving outcome. The Western tradition links Epiphany to the earthly life of Christ and looks to his mission as a gradual disclosure of Christ’s saving person.
The purpose of this article is not to engage in comparative liturgics. It is simply to facilitate a clearer understanding of the Eastern Orthodox and Western celebrations of Epiphany. Because these celebrations do not seem to be readily understood by ordinary Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians, although they do live in close proximity with each other here in America. After all, the annual recurrence of the Feasts provides a great opportunity for growing in understanding and appreciation of the riches of the Christian Tradition.
Scholars tell us that, in the Christian East, Epiphany is the oldest Feast of the Lord next to Pascha, 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 Pascha 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 implicitly. 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, Pascha 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: “As many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia.”
It was in the fourth century that the Birth of Christ began to be commemorated as a separate Feast 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? 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.
The establishment of Christmas did not diminish the importance of Epiphany, which is denoted by the time-span of its celebration. It is celebrated from the 2nd to the 14th of January. The 6th of January is the principal Day of the Feast. The four days preceding it constitute the fore-feast (proeortia) and the 8 days after it the after-feast (metheortia). The fore-feast is shorter because of the celebration of the circumcision of Christ (8th century onwards) on the 1st of January (which is also St. Basil’s feast day); but it includes an elaborate celebration on the eve of the Feast like Christmas and Pascha. The after-feast includes the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist (January 7th), the Sunday after Epiphany and the Return (Apodosis) of the Feast (January 14th).
The profound meaning of the Feast is revealed in the many and wonderful hymns that are sung on it and the biblical readings. There are two characteristic hymns that summarize this meaning perfectly: The “Apolytikion” and the “Kontakion.” They recall how at Christ’s Baptism he was declared to be God’s beloved Son in whom God is well pleased and on whom God’s Spirit rests (Matth. 3:17), and how this revelation constitutes an event of divine enlightenment and illumination.
“When in Jordan you were baptized, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bare witness to you, calling you his beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the steadfastness of the word. O Christ, who did manifest yourself, and who does enlighten the world, Glory to you.” (Apolytikion)
“You have manifested yourself today to the whole world and Your light, O Lord, was shown upon us, who praise you with understanding: You have come and manifested yourself as Light unapproachable.” (Kontakion)
Finally, the Great Sanctification of the waters, which is observed twice, on the eve and on the day of the Feast, brings out the message of salvation. “Christ was not baptized in order to be sanctified but to sanctify the waters and through them grant divine sanctification to all humanity” (Gregory Thaumatourgos). This is exactly the gift that is granted to all human beings when they are baptized into Christ. Baptism joins human beings to Christ, granting them remission of sins and eternal life through the sanctifying grace of God. The Holy Water blessed at Epiphany is a great blessing that is much treasured by the Orthodox who use it to renew (re-consecrate) themselves and their physical environment.
Scholars tell us that the origins of the Feast 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 Roman Liturgy.
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 the Feast of Christmas on the 25th of December. There is evidence of this in the sermons of Pope Leo (+461).
According to one theory the association of Epiphany with the Wise Men of the East may have been due to the transfer in the fourth century of the alleged relics of the Magi from Constantinople to Milan – a tradition that was revived in the middle ages as noted above. In any case, the Western Epiphany was fixed as the 12th day of Christmas, i.e. the 6th of January.
Given the above, what is the meaning of Epiphany for the Western Church? It is primarily the manifestation of the divine Savior Christ to the gentiles; but it is also the acknowledgment of Christ by the gentiles. This double meaning is expressed by the way the Western Church interpreted the offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh, by the wise Magi. On the one hand it saw these gifts as symbols of the three aspects of Christ’s life, his being king, priest and prophet. On the other hand it re-enacted the offering in various ways by instituting appropriate acts of offering, to the poor, to the church and to the sick.
One gains a better perspective of the Western Epiphany when he turns to the six Epiphany Sundays, which follow after it and lead the Western Christians to the new season of Lent. These Epiphany Sundays commemorate Christ’s self manifestation 1) at the age of twelve in the Temple, 2) at his first miracle at Cana of Galilee, 3) at his healing of a leper and of a slave of a Roman centurion, 4) at the stilling of the storm in the sea of Galilee for the sake of his disciples, 5) at his authoritative teaching on good and evil displayed in his parable of wheat and tares and 6) on the future glory as displayed in his parable of the mustard seed.
There is no doubt that both Eastern and Western traditions of Epiphany share a common message: the manifestation of the divine identity and saving work of Christ. The difference lies in ethos and emphasis. The Eastern tradition seems to be more attuned to the dramatic and theophanic aspect of Christ’s ministry, whereas the Western tradition seems to be seeking to follow the historical Jesus as he unfolds his message through his deeds and words. The one is more vertical and the other more horizontal. Combining the two could only be a source of enrichment.