Our word “Epiphany” is derived from a Greek one meaning “manifestation” or “apparition” and applies the appearance of God on earth in some distinctive manner. One of the greatest of these was the apparition of God in three Persons at the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. This is why we call this feast commemorating the baptism of our Lord, “the Theophany.” While it is true that in the early history of the church, a number of Christ’s manifestations were celebrated under this title – especially His baptism, His first miracle at Cana, His Nativity and the coming of the Magi – it is fairly clear that His baptism was the principal event commemorated in this feast.
To gain a deeper understanding of the word “Epiphany,” it is necessary to consider its use in times past. When a ruler paid a visit to one of his cities he would be greeted with great pageantry. He appeared in full regal pomp and his visit was marked by feasting and colorful celebrations. Such a festive visitation came to be known as an epiphany, or even “theophany – an appearance of God,” as if a divinity had come to earth. When the Son of God appeared in the river Jordan to be baptized there was indeed both an epiphany and theophany in the truest sense of the words.
Another name for the feast is the Enlightenment or Illumination. In the early centuries catechumens were baptized on the vigil of Epiphany or on the feast itself. Because baptism was often called enlightenment or illumination by the early Fathers, the feast on which it was administered acquired the same name. That catechumens were baptized on this day is evident from the fact that in the liturgy, the Trisagion is replaced on this day by the verse from Galatians 3:27: “All you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia.” The name enlightenment can be applied to this feast for yet another reason. The Word made flesh appeared publicly in the river Jordan – “Today You have revealed Yourself to all the world” (kontakion) – and this day, therefore, marks the appearance of the Light of the world and the beginning of His teachings, miracles and graces – “and your light, O Lord, has sealed us: (kontakion). It is only proper, therefore, that this day be called the enlightenment (Mt. 4:16).
Among the Slavs, in order to commemorate its historical origin and development, the feast is also called “Little Christmas” by reason of its liturgical and historical association with the Nativity of our Lord. Another popular name is simply “Jordan.”
The Epiphany is indeed a great feast. Liturgically it renews the joy of Christmas, shows us the incarnate God in a new light, and deepens our appreciation of the Incarnation itself. It is, in fact, so much like another Christmas that even the services are similar. As Christmas is the manifestation of the boundless love of God for man, so the Epiphany is the great revelation of the divinity of our Lord. The two feasts thus supplement one another. The Epiphany proclaims that the little Child of Bethlehem is really God pointing from earth to heaven. Christmas, on the other hand, tells us that God became for us a little Child, tracing his descent from heaven to earth. Where at Christmas only shepherds saw that the Word was made flesh, at the Epiphany the voice of God the Father summons the whole world to adore Jesus.
For in celebrating the baptism of our Lord, the Church also intends to proclaim the mystery of the Holy Trinity against the heretics. This is why the appearance of the Holy Trinity is repeatedly mentioned throughout the liturgy.
The origin of the Epiphany can be traced to apostolic times. The Apostolic Constitutions mention it: “Let us celebrate the feast of Epiphany, because on this day the divinity of Christ was revealed.” In the third century, St. Hyppolitus and Gregory the Neocaesarean take note of it. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine preached sermons on this day, calling it a great feast. St. Andrew of Crete in the seventh century and St. John Damascene in the eighth, composed beautiful hymns for it which are used even today in the liturgy.
The liturgical unity between Christmas and the Epiphany is due to the fact that originally both the birth of Our Lord and His baptism were celebrated on the same day, January 6, under the name of “Theophania.” After the introduction of Christmas as we know it, probably in the fourth century, the Epiphany lost its former significance as the day of Christ’s birth; but traces of the simultaneous celebration of these two feasts remain in the liturgy to this day. The fourth century Fathers often felt compelled to explain the differences between them. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, preaching probably on December 25, 380 A.D., after referring to the birth of Christ assures his hearers that they shall shortly celebrate the baptism of Christ. Similarly, St. John Chrysostom says that Christ did not appear at His birth openly and to all, but only to a few persons. So little was His divinity known that John the Baptist was able to say: “There has stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.” (Jn 1:26). But from the moment of His baptism His divinity was evident to all, and consequently the feast kept in honor of Christ’s baptism is called the Epiphany. Hence the complementary roles of both feasts. Yet Chrysostom, in a sermon preached in 386 A.D., calls the Nativity the parent festival; for had Christ not been born, neither could He have been baptized.
The Saturday and Sunday before the Epiphany have a special relation to the feast and are called the Saturday before Enlightenment and the Sunday before the enlightenment. Both have a special troparion, kontakion, prokimenon, Epistle, Gospel and communion verse, all have reference to the baptism of our Lord.
The vigil of the Epiphany is celebrated in a way similar to that of Christmas. The Royal Hours are chanted, followed by the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil with vespers; in the evening the Great Compline with litia are celebrated. A strict fast is observed, just as on the vigil of Christmas.
The day after the Epiphany is the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist. On this day, the Church honors the Forerunner or our Lord who baptized Him in the Jordan.
The Saturday and Sunday after the Epiphany have a special relation to the feast and are called the Saturday after the Enlightenment and the Sunday after the enlightenment.
Among the various services connected with the feast, the solemn blessing of water is of special interest. This blessing customarily took place outdoors at a river or pond. Today, however, for practical reasons this solemn blessing takes place in church, usually before the dismissal at the end of the Divine Liturgy. The colorful and elaborate ceremony commemorates Christ’s descent into the water of Jordan and begins with the reading of passages from the Prophet Isaias foreshadowing the baptism of Christ. After a short Epistle and Gospel, a long litany follows, in which the Church prays for the blessing of the Holy Spirit to descend upon the water and give it the power to cleanse those “who accept it with faith and drink it,” preserve them from spiritual and corporal illness, enlighten their minds, bring God’s blessing upon their minds, bring God’s blessing upon their homes, assist their prayers and supplications and help them reach the heavenly kingdom.
After the litany, a lengthy prayer is recited by the priest. This prayer, composed by St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, is interrupted three times: once when the celebrating priest blesses the water, with a three – branched burning candlestick; second time he breathes upon the water; and again when he blesses it with his hand. At the end of the ceremony he submerges the hand cross into the water, making he sign of the cross in it, and singing the troparion of the feast. The priest then sprinkles the church and the congregation with the just blessed water. Then the faithful come forward to receive the water to drink and to take home. During the days following the feast, the priest visits his parishioners and blesses their homes, a custom retained to this day.
The feast of the Epiphany has a post – festive period of eight days. The liturgy of the Epiphany expresses the deep meaning of the feast in poetic form yet manages to present the mysteries connected with Christ’s baptism in basically simple language. It directs our attention to Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Throughout the liturgy the divinity of Christ is constantly emphasized: “When John saw, You approaching him in the Jordan he cried out: O Christ God, how have You come to Your servant, O Spotless Lord? In whose name shall I baptize you? In the name of the Father? You bear Him in You. In the name of the Son? You are Yourself, the Incarnate One. In the name of the Holy Spirit: You can already breathe Him forth upon believers from Your mouth.” (stichera of vespers).
Next Feast Days
|January 1||Circumcision of our Lord and
The Feast of St. Basil the Great
|January 6||Epiphany (the Baptism of our Lord) … ( Theophany)|
|January 30||Feasts of the Three Holy Hierarchs|
|February 2||Presentation of our Lord|