Epiphany, The Solemnity of
EPIPHANY, THE SOLEMNITY OF
A feast celebrated for most of Christian history on January 6, though—since the reform of the liturgical calendar—marked by most Catholic churches on the Sunday between January 2 and 8, where January 6 is not a holy day of obligation.
Names for the Feast. One of the most ancient annual liturgical feasts, Epiphany has been variously called, in the East, epiphánia, epiphánios, theopháneia, all suggesting divine appearances or manifestations. Other names for the feast—such as heméra ton photon, or "day of lights"—have emphasized the images of sun, stars, and light, long associated with Epiphany and perhaps connected to the period of "illumination" in the process of initiation in the early Church. Parallel terms in the Latin West were dies epiphaniarum, the "day of revelations;" dies manifestationis, the "day of manifestions;" and simply apparitio, "appearance." Also connected to the light imagery was the Latin phrase dies luminum, the "day of lights."
Before their use in Christian liturgy, the Greek epiphany or theophany designated a manifestation of a divinity and, later, important events in the life of a ruler, such as a birth, ascension to the throne, or even a visit to a city. The word "epiphany" was first used in a Christian sense in the New Testament, referring to both the first and final comings of Christ (see, e.g., Ti 2:11,13). The word was soon after used of the miracles of Christ as manifestations of divine power.
Origins in the Calendar. A feast on January 6 is first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (around a.d.215), who said that the Basilidians, a gnostic group, commemorated the baptism of Christ on this day (Stromata 4.12; Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte [Leipzig 1897— ] 2:284–287). The feast of the Epiphany certainly originated in the East, and it is found in the Breviarium Syriacum of 411 C.E. (ed. tr. Mariani [Rome 1956] 28). In the West the journals of Ammianus Marcellinus describe a visit in 363 of the Emperor Julian to Gaul "on the day of the festival in January which the Christians call 'epiphany"' (LCL 2:98–101). The feast was listed in the Calendar of Carthage, in North Africa (Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne 8.2:2286), but not in the Roman Chronograph of 354, where one finds the earliest evidence for Christmas.
In the Egyptian calendar, the winter solstice and a feast of the sun-god were observed on January 6, so it is likely that the Christian date was originally related to draw people away from the pagan celebrations. On the previous night, pagans of Alexandria commemorated the birth of their god Aeon, born of a virgin. Some pagans also believed that the waters of rivers, especially the Nile, acquired miraculous powers and even turned into wine on this night.
Narratives in the East. It is difficult to ascertain if there was originally a single narrative or image for the feast, or if the feast celebrated a variety of epiphanies or manifestations from its origin. By the fourth century the feast embraced the narratives of the birth of Christ, his baptism, the adoration of the Magi, and the miracle at Cana (perhaps linked with the water turned wine in the Egyptian pagan celebration). Epiphanius, fourth-century bishop of Salamis, described the pagan feasts above and accepted January 6 as the date of the birth of Jesus, and he also speaks of the Magi and sign at the wedding in Cana (Panarion 51.16).
Two writers of Latin Christianity who traveled in the East give witness to early narratives for the feast. First, the fourth-century travel-diary of Egeria describes the Palestinian celebration of January 6 and its octave. Though a folio is missing, the narrative was likely that of the nativity of Jesus, for the people, monks, and the bishop had gone up from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. There is no mention in Egeria's journal of the baptism or of Cana for this feast (Journal, chapter 25). Second, according to John Cassian (Conferences 10.2), the Alexandrian "day of the epiphanies" commemorated the birth and baptism of Christ.
In ancient Christian Syria the narratives included the birth, the Magi, and the baptism, and the Apostolic Constitutions (8.33.7) command that slaves not work "on the festival of the Epiphany, because on it there came to pass the manifestation of the divinity of Christ … at the baptism" (tr. Grisbrooke, 51).
Narratives in the West. Though some scholars assume that there had been a single narrative at the start to which others were added, it seems more likely that a plurality of objects, all "manifestations" of God's presence in Christ, was there from the start. This is supported by the testimony of Bishop Filastrius of Brescia, whose Diversarum hereseon liber (c. 383) simultaneously declared that there is only one proper narrative for the feast (the visit of the Magi) and named the feast with the plural dies epifaniorum, "day of the manifestations," the plural likely capturing the earlier stratum of more than one narrative even though Filastrius was himself legislating only one for orthodox belief.
Sermons of Augustine indicate that the feast existed in North Africa in his time (Patrolgia Latina 38:1026–1039), and eight sermons of Leo the Great (bishop of Rome, 440–461) witness to the feast's observance in Rome in the middle of the fifth century (Sermons 31–38; Patrolgia Latina 54:234–263). By the time of Augustine and Leo, the date of December 25 for the birth of Christ had been received by most churches, and the narratives of Epiphany had been pared down to the single one of the visit of the Magi, as narrated only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12).
Liturgy. The multiplicity of narratives earlier attached to Epiphany was not manifest in the liturgies of Epiphany in Rome. There the principal narrative was from the earliest sources and still is the visit of the Magi to adore the Christ-child. The narratives of Christ's baptism and of the sign in Cana turning water into wine are secondary.
Early Mass formularies are found in the Würzburg Lectionary (Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne 8.2:2286) and in the old Gelasian Sacramentary (ed. Mohlberg 61–68). Although the diary of Egeria testifies to an octave of Epiphany in Palestine, and the Würzburg Lectionary indicates a triduum following January 6, an octave did not enter the Roman liturgy until the eighth century (Gregorian Sacramentary). This octave, together with the vigil, was suppressed in 1956. In the present liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic church, the Sunday after January 6 is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a narrative that had been proclaimed on Epiphany in Egypt in the early Church.
In the Liturgy of the Hours for the feast of Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ's power in the miracle of Cana is commemorated in the Magnificat antiphon on January 6 and in the Gospel of the second Sunday after Epiphany. The espousals of Christ and the Church are mentioned in the same antiphon. This theme enters the Epiphany liturgy because Christ is believed to have sanctified water at his baptism, and it is through the waters of baptism that the church exercises spiritual maternity.
Today the multiplicity is not evident in the texts for the eucharistic liturgy for the celebration of Epiphany. The prayer texts draw only from the Matthean narrative of the Magi. While the prayers maintain the imagery of light and stars, one step removed from the baptismal origins, these are dissociated from their original connection to baptism and the process of illumination. The multiplicity of the feast of manifestation is expressed well, however, in the antiphon for the canticle at morning prayer:
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away 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, alleluia. This is also so in the antiphon for the canticle at evening prayer:
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.
Customs. The fourth canon of the Council of Saragossa, Spain, in 380 legislated that "for 21 continuous days, from December 17 until the day of the feast of Epiphany, which is January 6, no one should be absent from church, or hide at home, withdraw to a dwelling in the country, move to the mountains, or go walking with bare feet. Rather, all should assemble in church." (tr. of Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio [Paris 1889–1927; repr. Graz 1960] 3:634). These prescriptions both indicate the gravity of the feast and suggest that Christmas itself was not yet observed in Spain in 380, for the three weeks of discipline, during which December 25 would have occurred, would not otherwise have been "continuous."
From ancient times the Eastern Church has blessed baptismal water on Epiphany. Antonius of Piacenza (c.570) testifies that in Palestine the Jordan River itself was blessed (Itinerarium 11–12; Patrologia Latina 72:903–904), this in commemoration of the baptism of the Lord in the same stream. Antonius testifies that a baptism took place, ships were blessed with the holy water, and "all descended into the river for blessing, dressed in woven clothes as if for burial."
As attested by John Cassian, on Epiphany the church of Alexandria announced to other churches the date of the following Easter. Elsewhere the dates of Easter and other movable feasts were announced after the Gospel on the feast of Epiphany. Ambrose testified to a Milanese custom at Epiphany for the enrollment of catechumens. Today, this custom has been revised in some parishes.
Bibliography: a. chupungco, ed., Liturgical Time and Space (Handbook for Liturgical Studies, v. 5; Collegeville, MN 2000) 135–330. a. adam, The Liturgical Year (New York 1981) 121–157. t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (New York 1986) 79–162. b. botte, Les origines de la Noël et de L'Épiphanie (Louvain 1932). m. merras, The Origins of the Celebration of the Christian Feast of Epiphany: An Ideological, Cultural and Historical Study (Joensuu, Finland 1995).
[m. f. connell]