Connecting Christmas to Theophany
During the early Christian centuries, Christmas, Theophany and Epiphany were celebrated together. The liturgical tradition concentrated on Theophany, which marks the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of His adult ministry, as the initial great event revealing Jesus’ significance to humanity.
During the early fourth century, the Church of Alexandria observed both Christmas and Theophany on January 6th. In due time Christmas began to be celebrated separately – first in Rome (354), then Cappadocia (380), Antioch (386), Constantinople (400), and gradually everywhere – on December 25th.
By choosing this date, the Church wished to Christianize the “Feast of Invincible Sun,” a popular observance marking the shift in the sun’s cycle in late December when the days again became longer. For the Church Fathers Christ was the only invincible Sun of righteousness Who by His birth illuminated the world and inaugurated the dawn of a new age.
In the liturgical Year, it is still natural to observe the period from Christmas to Theophany as a continuous celebration of Christ’s coming to the world. On Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Christ while on Theophany we remember His public appearance as the Son of God.
To think of the period between these two holidays as having the same significance, that is, Christ’s coming to the world, may help us to appreciate more deeply the meaning of Christ’s coming into our own lives. May it always be so.
By – Fr. Thomas Hopko
The sixth of January is the feast of the Epiphany. Originally it was the one Christian feast of the “shining forth” of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Wisemen, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Easter and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival, in this case the Feast of Lights.
Epiphany means shining forth or manifestation. The feast is often called, as it is in the Orthodox service books, Theophany, which means the shining forth and manifestation of God. The emphasis in the present-day celebration is on the appearance of Jesus as the human Messiah of Israel and the divine Son of God, One of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Thus, in the baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus identifies himself with sinners as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the “Beloved” of the Father whose messianic task it is to redeem men from their sins. (Luke 3:21, Mark 1: 35). And he is revealed as well as One of the Divine Trinity, testified to by the voice of the Father, and the Spirit in the form of a dove. This is the central epiphany glorified in the main hymns of the feast:
When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bears witness to Thee, calling Thee his beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and has enlightened the world, glory to Thee. (Troparion)
Today Thou hast appeared to the universe, and Thy. Light, O Lord, hast shone on us, who with understanding praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself, O Light Unapproachable! (Kontakion)
The services of Epiphany are set up exactly as those of Christmas, although historically it was most certainly Christmas which was made to imitate Epiphany since it was established later. Once again, the Royal Hours and the Liturgy of Saint Basil are celebrated together with Vespers on the eve of the feast; and the Vigil is made up of Great Compline and Matins.
The prophecies of Epiphany repeat the God is with Us from Isaiah and stress the foretelling of the Messiah as well as the coming of his forerunner, John the Baptist:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3: 4-6)
Once more special psalms are sung to begin the Divine Liturgy of the feast, and the baptismal line of Galatians 3:27 replaces the song of the Thrice-Holy. The gospel readings of all the Epiphany services tell of the Lord’s baptism by John in the Jordan River. The epistle reading of the Divine Liturgy tells of the consequences of the Lord’s appearing which is the divine epiphany.
For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2: 11-14)
The main feature of the feast of the Epiphany is the Great Blessing of Water. It is prescribed to follow both the Divine Liturgy of the eve of the feast and both the Divine Liturgy of the day itself. Usually it is done just once in parish churches at the time when most people can be present. It begins with the singing of special hymns and the sensing of the water which has been placed in the center of the church building. Surrounded by candles and flowers, this water stands for the beautiful world of God’s original creation and ultimate glorification by Christ in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this service of blessing is done out of doors at a place where the water is flowing naturally.
The voice of the Lord cries over the waters, saying: Come all ye, receive the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of the fear of God, even Christ who is made manifest.
Today the nature of water is sanctified. Jordon is divided in two, and turns back the stream of its waters, beholding the Master being baptized.
As a man Thou didst come to that river, O Christ our King, and dost hasten O Good One, to receive the baptism of a servant at the hands of the Forerunner (John), because of our sins, O Lover of Man. (Hymns of the Great Blessing of Waters)
Following are three readings from the Prophecy of Isiah concerning the messianic age:
Let the thirsty wilderness be glad, let the desert rejoice, let it blossom as a rose, let it blossom abundantly, let everything rejoice… (Isaiah 35: 1-10)
Go to that water, O you who thirst, and as many as have no money, let them eat and drink without price, both wine and fat… (Isaiah 55: 1-13)
With joy draw the water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall you say: Confess ye unto the Lord and call upon his Name is exalted … Hymn the Name of the Lord .. Rejoice and exult… (Isaiah 12: 3-6)
After the epistle (Corinthians 1:10-14) and the gospel reading (Mark 1: 9-11) the special great litany is chanted invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit upon the water and upon those who will partake of it. It ends with great prayer of the cosmic glorification of God in which Christ is called upon to sanctify the water, an all men and all creation, by the manifestation of his saving and sanctifying divine presence by the indwelling of the Holy and Good and Life-creating Spirit.
As the troparion of the feast is sung, the celebrant immerses the Cross into the water three times and then proceeds to sprinkle the water in the four directions of the world. He then blesses the people and their homes with the sanctified water which stands for the salvation of all men and all creation which Christ has effected by his “epiphany” in the flesh for the life of the world.