by Francis Weiser (1952)

Feast of the Epiphany


Origin • 

The term Epiphaneia (manifestation) designated in the Greek-Roman world an official state visit of a king or emperor to some city of his realm, and especially the occasions on which he publicly showed himself to the people. The Apostles applied this term to Christ manifesting Himself as our Divine Saviour: "He manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in Mm" (John 2:11).1 Since in the ancient pagan world people believed that gods, too, did sometimes "appear" on earth and show themselves in human form, the word theophany was applied to such events (theophaneia: manifestation of a god). The early Church, in both the East and the West, often used this meaningful term of theophany for the Feast of the Epiphany.2 The liturgical feast of Christ's "manifestation" originated in the Orient, in Egypt, during the third century. Modern scholars ilain the date (January 6) by the fact that the Egyptians cele-:ed on this day their great festival of the winter solstice in .or of the sun god.3 The Church authorities opposed this pagan observance with a feast of the true manifestation (nativity) the Divine Saviour King. This Christian feast, in turn, occa-oned among the heretical Gnostics a feast of Christ's baptism, lebrated on the same day.4 According to their false doctrine, Jesus was a mere human until His baptism in the Jordan. On day, they claimed, the Divinity united itself with the man Jesus and therefore the first truly divine manifestation of Christ .d not happen at His birth but only at His baptism.5 Epiphany, then, started as a feast of the Lord's nativity cele-brated on the day of the winter solstice in Egypt, which was twelve/days behind the Julian calendar.6 This festival also mcliiaed the commemoration of the Magi's visit and adoration. In Egypt (and a century later in the whole East Roman Empire) a commemoration of Christ's baptism was added, to stress the true character of this manifestation against the Gnostic "birth of divinity" doctrine regarding Christ's baptism.7

In the Greek Church Epiphany is still named Theophaneia (the appearing of God). In a similar sense the Syrians call it "coming forth" (denho) of the Saviour; and the Armenians use the term "God's manifestation" (Hajdnuthiun).8

From the Orient Epiphany came to Europe during the fourth century, about the same time as the new Feast of Christmas took root in the Roman liturgy. In many places (Spain, Gaul upper Italy) Epiphany was established first. In Milan it was solemnly observed as early as 353, but it still commemorated mainly the nativity of the Lord.9 Soon, however, Christmas spread from Rome through the whole Latin Church, and toward the end of the fourth century into the Greek Church as well, and the Nativity was now celebrated everywhere on December 25. This caused a change in the liturgical objective of Epiphany. In the Western Church, Epiphany had as its main objective the adoration of the Magi. The baptism of Christ and the miracle of Cana were also commemorated, but only in a subordinate manner. In the East, however, the visit of the Magi was celebrated together with Christmas on December 25, and Epiphany soon became the great feast of Christ's baptism.10

Epiphany has always remained one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year. As early as A.D. 400 Emperor Honorius (for West Rome) and Arcadius (for East Rome) forbade horse races and circus games on January 6 because they kept people from attending divine service. Justinian (565) made it a full civic holy-day. During the Middle Ages it had a vigil with fast and abstinence. The solemn octave was abrogated by Pope Pius XII in 1955 (for the Latin Church).11

In the new Code of Canon Law (1918), Epiphany has been retained as a holyday of obligation for the whole Church.12 The United States, however, and some countries in western Europe (France, Belgium, Holland) are dispensed from this obligation by the Holy See.13

Among the Greeks, too, it is one of the highest feasts, and as such bears the official notation in the calendar "Day of rest and solution from everything" (meaning all penitential fasting: Argia kai katalysis eis panta).14 The Armenians keep it as one of their five Daghavdr (Greatest Festivals) with a week's fast in preparation and a solemn octave following, of which the second day is also a feast of obligation.15

Nativity of Christ • 

That Epiphany originated as a celebration of Christ's nativity and was kept as such for over tvvo hundred years is evident from many historical sources. In one of his sermons, Saint John Chrysostom called it "Day of the Nativity'' fhemera genethlios) .16 Similar references to the birth of the Saviour may be found in the writings of other early Fathers the Orient.17 One of the most interesting accounts of this nativity celebration on January 6 in Bethlehem and Jerusalem preserved in the diary of Aefheria (from the end of the fourth afwyj. She vividly described the joyful splendor and fervent devotion of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and all their liturgical services performed during the eight days of the Epiphany celebration in honor of the Lord's nativity.18 In our present Mass text there is a trace left of this nativity bration. The Preface of the Mass, which was taken from an older prayer [ektenia) of the Greek liturgy of Epiphany, speaks God's only-begotten Son "appearing in the substance of our tality." The original Greek version had "thy only-begotten, co-eternal with thee in thy glory, appeared among us in a visible body like unto our own" (which clearly refers to Christ's birth). 19

Baptism of Christ • 

The celebration of Christ's baptism by the sties as His "birth of divinity" prompted the Eastern Church, commemorate that event in its true and historical meaning, as. of the manifestations of the Divine Saviour, together with arst and basic epiphany at Bethlehem.20 This commemoration also suggested by the fact that the baptism of the faithful is their true birth to supernatural life. And since Epiphany was the; birthday of the "Sun of: Justice" (replacing a pagan light feast), the thought naturally occurred that at baptism each soul is illumined; with the Light of Christ, the Divine Sun. For this reason the Greek Church used the word illumine (photizesthai), rather than the term washing, (baptizestkai), to designate bap-tism. And Epiphany, as the feast of our Lord's baptism, became the "Feast of Light" (phoiismos; ta phota). Saint Gregory of Nazfanz (390), preaching on Epiphany, called it "the holy Light of the Manifestations" (hagia phota ton Epiphaneion). 21

Very soon Epiphany not only commemorated Christ's baptism in the Jordan, but also became the great annual day of the solemn baptism of the faithful (as Easter vigil is in the Latin Church). The Slavs of the Greek Bite still call Epiphany the "Feast of Light" (Prosveszenije) or "Feast of Baptism" (Krescenije).22

In the Latin Church, since 1955, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan is commemorated also by a special feast on January 13. The Mass text used is the same as that of the former Octave of Epiphany.

Adoration of the Magi • 

In the Latin Church this event (Matthew 2:1-12) forms the main object of the Epiphany celebration.. All the texts of the Mass refer to it, and so do the prayers and hymns of the Divine Office. Only in the antiphons for the Bene-dictus (Lauds) and Magnificat (Vespers) is mention made of the two other manifestations included in the liturgy:

Three miracles adorn the sacred day which we celebrate: Today, the star led the Magi to the manger. Today, water was turned into wine at the wedding. Today, Christ willed to be baptised by John in the Jordan, in order to save us. Alleluia.23

In the Greek Church this "adoration of the Magi" (proskynesis ton Magon) is not celebrated on January 6, but is commemorated on Christmas Day. For the night Office an eikon (picture) showing the Infant in the manger, adored by the shepherds, is put up for veneration. At the Office during Christmas Day this picture is replaced by another one representing the visit and adoration of the Magi, thus reminding clergy and people of the two-fold epiphany in their Christmas celebration.24

Miracle of Cana • 

The celebration of this miracle as one of the manifestations of Christ is probably due to the fact that the Gospel uses the very word "manifest" (ephanerosen) in connection with it (John 2:11). Some scholars claim it was also occasioned by a pagan Egyptian legend that at the time of the winter solstice celebration (January 6) the gods turned water into wine, and that the Church wished to replace that pagan fiction by the memory of the historic miracle of Christ at Cana.25 Saint Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, in Italy (431), already mentions it as one of the "three manifestations" of Christ.26

In holy liturgy this commemoration presents a spiritual comparison of great depth, namely of Christ's "wedding" to His spouse, the Church—a picture based on many texts of a similar marriage symbolism between God and His people in the Old Testament.27 "Today, the Church is wedded to her heavenly bridegroom, after Christ has washed away her sins in the Jordan." 28

The Final Manifestation • 

There was a trend among many pious authors in medieval times of adding other manifestations to those officially mentioned in the liturgy, such as the multiplication of loaves, Christ walking on the waters, and the raising of Lazarus.29 It is true that all these events, and many similar ones, could rightly be considered as epiphanies of the Lord. The liturgy, however, has never officially included more than the four events of the Nativity, the adoration of the Magi, the baptism of Christ and the miracle of Cana.

There is an exception, though, and a very significant one. Although not expressly mentioned in the liturgical texts of Epiphany, the thought of Christ's last and greatest manifestation in His coming at the end of time (parousia) stands like a radiant beacon behind the liturgical celebration of His corning in the past.30 Through the whole season of Advent and Christmas—in fact, through the whole ecclesiastical year—the liturgical prayers have stressed the preparatory character of all the celebrations on earth: they are to lead the faithful to the joyful and everlasting reunion with Christ at the end of time.

"Behold, the Lord will come, and all his saints with him; and on that day there shall be a great light. Alleluia."31 These words of the Advent liturgy seem to come to a symbolic fulfillment on Epiphany. As the Lord truly manifested Himself on earth, so He will manifest Himself in that last and greatest epiphany when) all things will find their fulfillment in Him.

Saint John Chrysostom proclaims this very thought in one of his sermons on Epiphany:

There are two manifestations of Christ, not only one. The first is the one which has already happened, His epiphany in the present. The second is the one of the future which will come at the end of time with great splendor and glory. You have heard read today what St. Paul writes to Titus about both these epiphanies. Concerning the first he says, "The grace of God our Savior has appeared to all men. . . ." About the second he writes, "We look for the blessed hope and glorious coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2, 11-13 ).32








Keith Hunt) 

Feast of the Three Kings • 

In the High Middle Ages popular devotion turned to the Magi themselves on January 6. They are called "saints" for the first time in the writings of Archbishop Hildebert of Tours (1133).33 In the twelfth century their veneration spread over all of Europe. The authorities of the Church did not prohibit this cult, and Epiphany acquired the popular name of "Feast of the Three Holy Kings" in most countries of Europe.34

The name Magi is not a Hebrew word, but of Indo-European origin, and means "great, illustrious." Saint Matthew mentioned the term without explanation because it was well known to the people of Palestine. The Magi originated in Media (Persia), and their caste later spread to other Oriental countries. They were a highly esteemed class of priestly scholars, devoting themselves not only to religion but also to the study of natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology. In several countries they were members of the Mng's council.35

Where did the Magi come from? Saint Matthew gives a general answer: "Wise men from the East." Speaking in modern terms, it could have been from any one of the countries of Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or India. It has never been exactly determined from which of these countries they came.

Quite early in the Christian era a popular tradition conferred on them the title of "kings." This tradition became universal at the end of the sixth century. It was based on Biblical prophecies which described the conversion of the pagans and, although not referring to the Magi, were applied to their visit:

The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Sheba shall bring gifts. (Psalms 71:10)

The kings shall walk in the brightness of thy rising. . . . They all shall come from Sheba, bringing gold and frankincense. (Isaiah 60:3-6)

The Gospel does not tell us how many they were. The Christians in the Orient had an old tradition of twelve Magi. In early paintings and mosaics they are represented as two, three, four, and even more. In the occidental Church a slowly spreading tradition put their number at three. It does not seem to have any Hstorical foundation, but was probably based on the fact of the threefold presents.36 Another reason for the number three was the early legend that they represented all humanity in its three great races. Thus one of them was pictured as a member of the black race, and this choice seemed to be confirmed by the Bible:

Let the great ones come forth from Egypt,

let Ethiopia stretch out her arms to God. (Psalms 67:32)

The book Collectanea et Flores, ascribed to Saint Bede the Venerable (735), records an earlier legend of their names and appearance:

The first was called Melchior; he was an old man, with white hair and long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was called Baltasar; the myrrh Be held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man.37

There is an old legend that when many years had passed the Magi were visited by Saint Thomas the Apostle, who, after instructing them in Christianity, baptized them. They were then ordained to tie priesthood and made bishops. It is said that once more the star of Bethlehem appeared to them and reunited them toward the end of their lives. "The city of Sewa in the Orient" is given as the place of their burial.38

The legendary relics of the Magi were brought from Constantinople to Milan in the sixth century. In 1164 Emperor Frederick Barbarossa obtained them from the archbishop of Milan and transferred them to Cologne. Their shrine in Cologne was, and still is, the center of many pilgrimages.39

Proclamation of Feasts • 

One of the special traditions connected with Epiphany was the publication on January 6 of the annual letter of the patriarch of Alexandria announcing the date of Easter for the current year (epistola festalis).40 The scholars of Alexandria were considered most competent to make the difficult computations and observations necessary to determine this date, and thus the whole East followed their findings, which were sent to all churches by the patriarch. In the sixth century, the fourth Council of Orleans (541) ordered the same procedure in the West.41 During the Middle Ages the dates of other movable feasts used to be added to the date of Easter and be solemnly read to the people on Epiphany Day. This ancient custom is still observed in some cathedrals as a traditional solemnity on January 6 at the end of the pontifical Mass.42 With the introduction of modern calendars the announcing of the Easter date and other feasts has been discontinued. Instead, the bishops now issue pastoral letters before Lent, including the regulations for fast and abstinence.

Solemn Blessing of Water *

With the commemoration of Christ's baptism there was associated in the Orient from ancient times not only the custom of blessing baptismal water in the churches but also of solemnly blessing a nearby river or fountain in honor of the Lord's baptism.43 In Palestine it was the Jordan, of course, that received this blessing in a most colorful and solemn ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims would gather on its shores to step into the water after the rite, submerging three times to obtain the great blessing. In Egypt the Nile was thus blessed for many centuries; the whole Christian population, and even many Mohammedans, would plunge into its floods three times, then drive their domestic animals into the river, and also dip pictures, statues, and crosses to obtain the Epiphany blessing.44

In the cities of East Rome, Epiphany water was blessed in the church and given to the people to take home. Saint John Chrysos-tom claimed that this water was known to stay fresh throughout the whole year and even longer.45

The Russians and other Slavs of the Greek Rite observe the "blessing of water" on the twenty-fifth day after Easter (always a Wednesday) which they call "Mid-Pentecost." Priests and people walk in procession to a well or river, the water is solemnly blessed, and the faithful fetch a goodly supply to keep during the year.46

In the Latin Church this blessing of water was introduced in the fifteenth century. The present rite of solemn blessing is to be performed on the vigil of Epipliany. The prayers, replacing older formulas, date from the year 1890. 47 After the texts of the blessing the Roman ritual gives the following instruction: "This blessed water should be distributed to the faithful, to be devoutly used by them in their homes., and also for the sick ones." 48

Blessing of Homes • 

The Roman ritual also provides a beautiful and impressive rite of blessing the homes of the faithful on the Feast of the Epiphany. This blessing is usually given by the pastor.49 After reciting the Magnificat, the priest sprinkles the rooms with holy water and incenses them, then recites the prayers. Here, in English translation, is the actual prayer of blessing:

Bless, O Lord, almighty God, this house, that therein, be found good health, chastity, the power of spiritual victory, humility, goodness and meekness, the plenitude of the Law, and thanksgiving to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: and may this blessing remain on the house and on its inhabitants. Through Christ our Lord. Amen." 50

After the blessing the initials of the legendary names of the Magi—Gaspar, Melchior, Baltasar—are written with white chalk cm the inside of the door, framed by the number of the year, and all symbols are connected by the cross: 19+G+M+B—. To sanctify even the chalk for this writing, there is a special "Blessing of Chalk on the Feast of the Epiphany" in the ritual.51


Magi Plays • 

A favorite mystery play in medieval times was the "Office of the Star," a pageant of the Magi's visit on the Feast of the Epiphany. Like the Nativity play, this originated as a part of the liturgical service in church (in the eleventh century, probably in France) and soon spread into all European countries. However, from a devout religious ceremony it degenerated into a boisterous affair, due to the appearance of King Herod, who was introduced into the play as a raging maniac, throwing a wooden spear around, beating clergy and laity alike, creating havoc in both sanctuary and church by his antics.52

Because of these abuses, the "Office of the Star" was soon abolished as a part of the liturgical service. In its place appeared very early the "Feast of the Star," an Epiphany play performed partly outside the church, partly inside, but in no way connected with the Mass or the liturgical Office. One of the earliest reports of this pageant is in Milan, 1336, where it was directed by the Franciscan friars as an mspiring religious ceremony. The "Three Kings," crowned and richly clad, appeared on horseback with a large retinue, bearing golden cups filled with myrrh, incense, and gold. They rode in state through the streets of the city to the church of St. Eustorgius where they dismounted, entered in solemn procession, and offered their gifts at the Christmas crib.53

These Epiphany plays spread quickly through all of Europe; the interest in them was heightened because the Crusaders had brought back tales and Oriental customs from the Holy Land.54 They were gradually prohibited after the Reformation and completely discarded as religious pageants in many countries, degenerating into wild Dragon plays, "Thre Kynges" puppet shows, and other demonstrations.55 In more religious communities they kept their original character, somewhat simplified like the Stern-singen in Germany and the festival of Los Tres Rejes (The Three Kings) among Spanish-speaking nations.56

Epiphany Carols • 

These carols tell the story of the three Magi, their journey to Bethlehem, the adoration, the presents offered, and other details, including sentiments of prayer and devotion.

Many of them are like ballads and of considerable length. Here is the beginning of an old English Epiphany carol:

Three kings came out of Indian land

To see the wondrous Infant bent, With rich presents in their hand;

Straightly a star before them went. A wondrous thing it was to see:

That star was more than other three. . . .57

An Epiphany song of deep devotion is the old Portuguese carol Os Reis (The Kings):

Out of the Orient they came ariding

Three noble kings, of humble heart and mild; They came to see the Blessed Lord of Heaven

Descend to earth, to be a little child-Precious gifts of gold and myrrh and incense,

Bringing God the gifts which God had made: Low the kings in homage bowing,

At the feet of Mary laid.58

Star Carols • 

These songs are sung by young people who go from house to house at Epiphany, carrying a pole with the "star of Bethlehem" and impersonating the Magi, reporting the adventures of their journey and wishing all a happy and holy Christmas. This custom, a simplified form of the ancient Epiphany plays, was widespread in England, Holland, France, Austria, and Germany from the end of the fourteenth century until the Reformation. It is still practiced in Austria, Bavaria (Stern-singen), and the Slavic countries.59

We are the three Kings with our star, We bring you a story from lands afar: And so, dear people, we say to you— It might sound strange, but is really true-That something happened in the Holy Land; We went there, all three, by God's command, And in Bethlehem's stable we found a child: Our new-born Saviour, sweet and mild. . . .

Present-Giving *

In Italy and in the Spanish-speaking countries January 6 is the day of giving presents to children. In Rome and other cities of Italy an unusual figure impersonates the gift-bringer for children. It is the "Lady Befana," a sort of fairy queen. She has to atone, according to the legend told to the little ones, for having treated Jesus and Mary in an unfriendly manner on their journey to Egypt. Now that Christ is no longer on earth, she tries to make children happy in His honor by giving them presents. The name comes from the word epiphany.

In Spain and South America the present-giving (estrenas.) is done not only at Christmas, but also by the Magi (Los Tres. Rejes Magos). During the night of January 6, little gifts are deposited in the children's shoes by the Magi; and on the feast day, after Mass, the children receive them. Often the Magi leave presents for them at the house of the grandparents as well, where they go on the afternoon of Epiphany. In some cities of Spain the custom recently developed of three men (usually employees of toy stores) impersonating the Magi and delivering the presents on Epiphany Day "in person."

Kings' Cake • 

An old tradition in most countries of Europe was the festival of the "Kings' Cake" (Dreikonigskuchen, Gateau- des, which was baked on Epiphany in honor of the Magi and eaten at a special party in the home on the afternoon of the feast60 Often a coin was put in the dough before baking, and the person who found it was the "king." In Austria, Germany, France, and England, and also in Canada, this cake contained a bean and a pea,, making the respective finders Tang" and "queen" of the merry party.61

This custom has been explained as a relic of the ancient games of chance at the Roman Saturnalia. However, there is no proof of this connection; the first reports about the "Kings' Cake" date from the end of the fourteenth century.62 Also, the wild and excessive reveling of the Saturnalia or Calendae was never a feature of this festival. It was an old custom in France to put a big piece of the cake aside "for our Lord" and to give it to some poor person after the feast. Another tradition in France demanded that rich people help collect a goodly sum of money by giving a substantial donation in return for their piece of the cake.

This money was deposited on a tray and. was called "the gold of the Magi." It was afterward used to pay the cost of higher education for some talented poor youngster.63

A canon of the cathedral of Series, Jean Deslion, wrote a whole book against the Kings' festival in the seventeenth century. He erroneously identified it with the Feast of Fools.64 He probably stopped some abuses, for which credit is due him. The custom itself, however, lived on and is still practiced in sections of France, England, and French Canada











Keith Hunt