About the Festival
A Christian observance of January 6 is found as early as the end of the second century in Egypt, as attested by the writings of Clement of Alexandria. After Easter and Pentecost, the Epiphany is therefore the oldest festival in the church year.
Easter and Pentecost both have Jewish antecedents. The Epiphany also has ancient sources, but the origins of the feast are disputed. Older studies suggested that both Christmas and Epiphany are related to pagan solstice festivals. Epiphanius (ca. 315-403) notes that in Egypt there was a night festival on the 11th of Tybi (January 5-6) celebrating the birth of the god Aion, god of time and eternity and protector of Alexandria, from a virgin, Kore. The waters of the Nile, it was thought, acquired miraculous powers and turned to wine that night, and the celebration involved a ritual drawing of water from the Nile at the beginning of the year. A festival in honor of Dionysus on January 5, Pater Liber, is mentioned by Pliny the Younger. The Christian celebration focused on the Baptism of Jesus because the Egyptian Church at the beginning of the year began the reading of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which begins with Jesus’ baptism. There came into existence, at least in the East, a Christian festival that echoed the ancient solstice celebration and which was called “the Holy Day of Lights” or “the Day of Holy Lights,” commemorating the manifestation of God in the birth and baptism of Jesus.
Such is what has been called the “history of religions hypothesis.” Careful study of the sources, however, fails to establish a close relationship between any pagan festivals and the Epiphany, and in the later twentieth century another hypothesis was developed based on the relationship between the date of Jesus’ death and conception and birth. In Asia Minor Christians celebrated their paschal festival at the same time as the Jewish Passover. Passover is celebrated on the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of spring in the Jewish lunar calendar. The Christians followed a solar calendar and set their paschal feast on the 14th day of Artemesios, the first month of spring in the solar calendar. When that Asian date was replaced with the Roman version of the Julian calendar, the result was April 6. Because Christian devotion understood Jesus’ perfect life to have begun and ended on the same date, the beginning of the Incarnation, his conception, was thought to have taken place on what was also to be the date of his crucifixion, April 6. His birth therefore would have been exactly nine months later, January 6.
The oldest name for this feast, still used by the Orthodox Churches, seems to have been “Theophany,” suggesting the origin of the day as a commemoration of the incarnation as the revelation of God. The name Epiphany derives from a Greek word meaning “appearing” or “manifestation.” In the Graeco-Roman world, a state visit of a king or emperor to a city of his realm, especially when he showed himself publicly to the people, was called an epiphany. In the East the Epiphany of Christ has always had a more theological and less historical or commemorative character, so the baptism rather than the birth of Christ was selected as the event to illustrate the doctrine of the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus Christ. The generous use of incense on this day is especially appropriate to honor God whose revelation is celebrated.
The Church in Alexandria emphasized the baptism of Jesus as a principal component of the Epiphany festival as a manifestation of who Jesus is. Mark’s Gospel, traditionally associated with Alexandria, begins directly with the account of the baptism of Jesus by John. By the fourth century, especially in Gaul and northern Italy, Jesus’ first miracle and revelation of his divine power, turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, had became a part of the thematic richness of the feast of the Epiphany. Very early in the celebration of this feast, three mysteries of the manifestation of the divinity of Christ were combined: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. These several themes are gathered and interwoven in a splendid antiphon to the Benedictus at Lauds (Morning Praise) for the Epiphany:
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed away her sins in the waters of the Jordan;
the Magi hasten to the royal wedding;
and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.
In the East, therefore, January 6 was observed as a feast of the baptism of Jesus and of his first miracle at Cana; in the West, the observance of December 25 was a celebration of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi. In the second half of the fourth century an exchange of feasts took place, and both feasts came to be celebrated by the vast majority of Christians in both East and West.
With the spread of Christmas as the celebration of Christ’s birth, the Epiphany was, in the West, coming to be associated with the visit of the Magi, in part, perhaps, because of the transfer of the relics of the Magi from Constantinople in the fifth century. The Excerpta et Collecteana associated with the Venerable Bede gives the number of the Magi as three and supplies their names as well as a fanciful description of each and a symbolic interpretation of the gift each brought.
The Magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard …who offered gold to the Lord as king. The second, named Gaspar [Caspar], young and beardless and ruddy-complexioned…honored him as God by his gift of incense, and offering worthy of divinity The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, called Balthasar…by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.
This description has influenced the portrayal of the Magi ever since.
Matthew’s note that the Magi entered “the house” to offer their gifts to the Christ Child encouraged the development of the practice in many parts of Europe of blessing homes on this feast. As a sign of the blessing, three initials representing the traditional names the Magi (C [Caspar, sometimes Kaspar or Gaspar], M [Melchior], and B [Balthasar]), were marked in chalk over the doors of houses, each initial preceded by a cross signifying “holy or “saint.” Thus for the year 2008: 20 + C + M + B 08. The letters have also been understood to stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, Christ bless this house. The Roman Catholic Book of Blessings still has a form for blessing of chalk for this use; there is an order for such blessing of houses in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services.
A useful Epiphany custom is a procession to the crib with children dressed and crowned as kings, bearing symbolic gifts for the Christ child: gold (money), incense (perhaps just a stick of incense to be burned in his honor), and a cross or other sign of his death. The three gifts have been understood to proclaim three mysteries: gold for a king, incense for a God, and myrrh for his burial. A star on a staff may replace the processional cross on this day.
Before people had ready access to calendars, it became a custom at the Epiphany to announce the dates of the feasts that would occur later in the year: Septuagesima (pre-Lent), Ash Wednesday, Easter Day, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the First Sunday in Advent. A modern form of the announcement is this, for the year 2008.
Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us until the day of his return. Through the rhythms and times and seasons, let us celebrate the mystery of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his Last Supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection celebrated between the evening of the 20th of March and the evening of the 23rd of March. Each Easter, as on each Sunday, the holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the 6th of February. The Ascension of Our Lord will be commemorated on the 1st of May, and the joyful conclusion of Easter, the Day of Pentecost, will be celebrated on the 11th of May. Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the Passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy mother of God, in the feasts of the apostles, martyrs, and saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed. To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, the Lord of time and history, be endless praise, forever and ever.
The tradition of the announcement of the church year has been preserved in some places and revived in many others because it teaches that the celebration of the Nativity is only the beginning of the liturgical celebration of Christ’s life and that it has its culmination in the Paschal Mystery, the center of the liturgical year. Moreover, the announcement on the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is an anticipation of the parousia, when Christ will come again in all his glory to gather the nations under his gentle rule.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Epiphany (holiday)
From a sermon by Ernst P. Pfatteicher
The testimony of the Magi is the testimony of the learned men of their day; the testimony of heathen lands, a testimony that Christ had come to “lighten the Gentiles.”
The final testimony…follows a preliminary testimony which demands a trial of their faith. In the case of the shepherds the message “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior” calls forth faith as the shepherds say, one to another, “let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord made known unto us.” In the case of Simeon and Anna, life has been a long-continued assertion of faith. Their constant attendance upon temple services and ministrations was the resultant of their faith, a faith that was to find its full fruition in the coming of the Messiah. Was the faith of the Magi a lesser thing as it impelled them to seek the fruition of their hopes in subjecting themselves to a long and tedious caravan journey? The New Testament is thus born in an atmosphere of faith. As Abraham’s faith was tested many centuries before when he was told to count the stars and thus count his seed, the New Testament points to but one star, it may be, but lends to it a significance which is supreme.…
To the Magi the study of the heavenly bodies…was their program of life. They sought thus to interpret life. Fortunately they did not spend all their time in star gazing. They endeavored to apply the lessons which star gazing taught them. Why did they leave home? Was it to obtain a better vantage point from which to observe the peculiar constellation which had swung into their ken? Was it to consult with others eminent as star gazers? You know very well from the statement with which they greeted Herod what their purpose was in setting forth upon their journey. “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in its rising, and are come to worship Him.” The star had not appeared to them the day before. They had had abundant opportunity to be cured of any superstitious emotions, moods of frenzy or fanatical zeal on their journey, and perhaps for some time before they started, for when Herod later carried his terrible decree concerning the Innocents into execution, he ordered that all children two years of age and under must be put to death “according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.” The remarkable thing about this story is its very deliberateness. Not that they might advance their studies, but that they might worship the King of the Jews did the Magi set forth upon their pilgrimage. The constellation was not the goal of their journey. They lost sight of that, and they expressed manifest surprise when it reappeared as they were leaving Jerusalem. Nor did they look upon an interview with Herod as their goal. They followed their star from the holy city to the little town of Bethlehem and there lost sight of it, not necessarily because the constellation was no longer visible, for we are clearly told that it stood over the house where the young child was, but because they needed no planetary constellation after having approached the Light of the World.…
Herod’s thoughts centered solely in the preservation of his throne. He ignored personal and national righteousness. The appearance of the Star of the Christ signifies the ultimate destruction of the sort of power, the sort of reign he represented. The door of entrance into the spiritual kingdom of the King of the Jews was open to Herod and his court. He might have accompanied the Magi in their onward march. He would have sacrificed nothing by so doing. The star of Herod was not the star of the Christ, however. The gloom and misery and darkness in Rama were caused by a conflict between these stars. The powers of darkness will ever continue to endeavor to obscure the true star. Herod will ever try to outwit the Magi.…
The Magi are representatives of the Gentile world and would tell us ere the story of the Nativity must give way to other stories of the Christ that the good tidings are, without doubt, intended for all people who will arise and accompany them to Bethlehem.
Ernst P. Pfatteicher, Sermons on the Gospels: Advent to Trinity(Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1918), 80-86.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Gregorian sacramentary, trans. (BCP)
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 (9); Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:(1) 2-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Hymn of the Day: “Earth has many a noble city” (H82 127, LBW 81)
Prayers: For the nations of the earth; For seekers of wisdom; For the spirit of humility and reverence; For those who bring offerings to God; For churches named for the mystery of the Epiphany, for which this day is their feast of title