The Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is precisely which events the feast commemorates. For Western Christians, the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, with only a minor reference to the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the Wedding at Cana. Eastern churches celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River. In both traditions, the essence of the feast is the same: the manifestation of Christ to the world (whether as an infant or in the Jordan), and the mystery of the Incarnation: the coming of God in the flesh. But how did Epiphany start?
The term Epiphany came from the Koine Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia which means “manifestation”, or “appearance”. In the Old Testament, the word is used of a manifestation of the God of Israel (cf. 2 Maccabees 15:27); while in the New Testament, the word is used in 2 Timothy 1:10 to refer either to the birth of Christ or to His appearance after His resurrection, and five times to refer to His Second Coming (cf. Titus 2:11-13).
As its nomenclature suggests, the Epiphany had its origin in the Eastern churches with their celebration of the birth of Christ on the 6th January. This date was determined in relation to the date of the Lord’s death based on the ancient Jewish belief that the the death of the prophets of Israel coincided with the date of their birth or conception. The churches in the East believed that Christ died on 14th Nisan in the lunar calendar of the Jews, which corresponds to 6th April in the Roman calendar; also making it as their date when St. Gabriel the Archangel declared to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would become the Mother of the Son of God. Consequently, the ninth month after Christ’s conception falls on 6th January, the day of the birth of Christ according to the Eastern liturgical tradition. The Eastern churches, thus, further believed that it is in the Lord’s birth that God manifested Himself to the world in human form, including other events of His manifestation: the visit of the Magi (manifestation to the Gentile represented by the Magi), His baptism in the Jordan river (manifestation to the world as God the Son), and His first miracle in the wedding feast at Cana (manifestation of Christ’s public life).
In the Western churches, while the birth of the Lord was set on the 25th December (read Was the Lord born on December 25th?), 6th January remains to be observed by the Latin-Rite churches as the day commemorating the manifestation of Christ, especially to the Magi, also at His baptism in Jordan river and at the wedding feast of Cana. Moreover, this plurality of epiphanic themes later gave way to concentrate on the celebration of the principal (not sole) theme of the Epiphany of the Lord, i.e. His physical manifestation to the Gentile represented by the wise men (magi) as evidenced from the writing, Catalogue of Heresies around AD 383, of St. Philastrius, bishop of Brescia (d. AD 397), wherein he laid down the law for orthodox belief — that there is only one proper narrative for the feast, namely, the visit of the Magi. St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, and St. Leo I, bishop of Rome, in their sermons “On the Epiphany” further highlighted the principal (not sole) theme of the Epiphany — the Visit of the Magi as narrated in Matthew 2:1-12. In AD 1955, the late Pope Pius XII also instituted a separate feast for the Baptism of the Lord, which traditionally falls on the 13th January but later set on the Sunday after the Epiphany in the revised liturgical calendar.
The Holy Catholic Church teaches: “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Saviour of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighbouring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that ‘the full number of the nations’ now takes its ‘place in the family of the patriarchs’, and acquires Israelitica dignitas (is made worthy of the heritage of Israel)” (CCC 528).
But how old is the celebration of the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord?
The first reference about the 6th-January observances is found in the writing of Clement of Alexandria around AD 215 (Stromata I.21.45), who writes: “There are those, too, who over-curiously assign to the Birth of Our Saviour not only its year but its day, which they say to be on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. But the followers of Basilides celebrate the day of His Baptism too, spending the previous night in readings. And they say that it was the 15th of the month Tybi of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. And some say that it was observed the 11th of the same month.” Note that 11 and 15 Tybi are 6 and 10 January, respectively. But the first actual reference to an ecclesiastical feast of the Epiphany is found in the writing of a Roman soldier and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (XXI:ii), around AD 361, where he mentioned that the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, participated in this feast day in Vienne of Gaul.
Below are other citations from the early Christians in reference to Epiphany:
⚫ St. Epiphanius (AD 310-403), bishop of Salamis, wrote in his Panarion (51:27) that January 6 is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion (Christ’s Birthday; that is, His Epiphany). He also asserted that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day (cf. chapters xxviii and xxix).
⚫ The Apostolic Constitutions (AD 375-380) mentioned that “slaves should not work on the festival of Epiphany because on it came to pass the manifestation of the divinity of Christ – at the baptism” (8:33.7).
⚫ St. Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 329-390), archbishop of Constantinople, referred to the day as ta theophania (the Theophany, an alternative name for Epiphany), in a sermon delivered on 25 December AD 380, saying expressly that it is a day commemorating he hagia tou Christou gennesis (the holy nativity of Christ) and told his listeners that they would soon be celebrating the baptism of Christ. Then, on January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons (Orations xxxix and xl) wherein he declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Magi had already taken place, and that they would now commemorate His Baptism.
⚫ Himerius (d. AD 385), bishop of Tarragona, sent complaint to Pope Damasus, bishop of Rome, that baptisms were being celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany. In response, Pope Siricius, bishop of Rome, in his Directa Decretal, identified the feasts of Natalitia Christi and of His Apparitio, and is very indignant at the extension of the period for baptisms beyond that of Easter and that of Pentecost.
⚫ Egeria, the aristocratic lady from the West who visited the Holy Land in AD 385, described the Jerusalem liturgy with a celebration of 6th January and its octave, which she called the Quadragesimae de Epiphania, involving a procession of people, monks and the bishop going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Itinerarium Egeriae, xxv).
⚫ St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, also, in AD 386 preached: “We shall now say something about the present feast. Many celebrate the feastdays and know their designations, but the cause for which they were established they know not. Thus concerning this, that the present feast is called Theophany — everyone knows; but what this is — Theophany, and whether it be one thing or another, they know not. And this is shameful — every year to celebrate the feastday and not know its reason” (Discourse on the Day of the Baptism of Christ).
⚫ St. John Cassian (AD 360-435), monk and theologian, mentioned that at the time of his travels in Egypt around AD 418-427, the monasteries there celebrated both the nativity and the baptism of the Lord on 6th January (Conferences, X).
THOUGH the manner of celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord and its focus may differ from one liturgical rite to another, and there could be a great diversity of commemorations; yet they remain tied together by one common theme — that they are all aspects of the manifestation of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus, this great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord makes up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the very Christmas miracle — the miracle of Emmanuel, i.e. God with us.