Christmas and Epiphany: Two Feasts, One Mystery?

By Guy Freeland

Before the next issue of Vema hits your local church we will have celebrated two of the greatest of the Twelve Great Feasts, Christmas and Epiphany/Theophany. We will also have celebrated another feast of Our Lord, the Circumcision (which doubles as the feast of Basil the Great) and a cluster of lesser feasts.

We will (hopefully) have enjoyed the family-centred festivities of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", probably broken the bathroom scales and said "good riddance" to, or alternatively shed a nostalgic tear for, the Old Year. And parish priests will have been out on the road with their Holy Water bucket tracking down even the least observant of the households in their spiritual care to bring them the Blessing of Jordan.

Just a string of disparate ecclesiastical and secular celebrations, or is there an underlying unity to this extraordinary festive season? To uncover the unity beneath the seeming diversity we need to do some digging.

A Little Bit of History

Today, we, not surprisingly, do tend to think of Christmas and Epiphany as commemorations of two completely separate events in the life of Christ, His birth and His baptism. But in the East these two events were originally commemorated as a single great feast. This was kept on January 6 and was understood as the feast of the Manifestation (Epiphany) or Manifestation of God (Theophany); in other words, the festival of the Mystery of the Incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The Armenians still today combine the two commemorations on January 6, but elsewhere in the East commemoration of the Nativity of Christ was transferred to December 25.

This, in fact, reflects a general liturgical tendency, to tease apart individual festivals so that better focus can be directed on their major aspects. Thus the Council of Nicaea (325) ruled that it was no longer permissible for churches (mainly in Asia Minor) which had been following the tradition of celebrating the whole Paschal Mystery of Our Lord on the day of the Jewish Passover to continue to do so; commemoration of the Resurrection was to be kept on a Sunday. This ensured that key episodes, from the Last Supper to the Resurrection via the Crucifixion, would be commemorated on the days of the week on which they had historically occurred.

The celebration of the Nativity of Christ on December 25 had begun in Rome by 336, seemingly before the feast of Epiphany was kept there on January 6. In the East the commemoration of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, an event which occurred some time after the actual birth, was transferred along with the Nativity to December 25; in fact, the narrative from Matthew provides the Gospel for Christmas Day itself (2:1-12).

In the West the visit of the Magi, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, became the focus of Epiphany, while commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord (the focus, of course, of the feast in the East) was observed eight days later, the Octave day. In present Catholic practice, commemoration of the Baptism is normally observed on the Sunday after Epiphany (which itself is normally transferred to Sunday).

But what of the dates themselves? The popular view is that January 6 and December 25 were chosen because they corresponded to major pagan feasts which the Church was anxious to replace with Christian festivities. The earliest evidence we have for the celebration of a feast in honour of Our Lord's baptism, Epiphany, comes from early third century Alexandria, where it was observed by Gnostics.

During the night of 5th/6th January at Alexandria the birth of the god of time and eternity, Aion, was celebrated. Part of the ritual involved the drawing of water from the Nile. A pagan belief, that on the night of this festival certain springs flowed with wine, has also been linked to the fact that another event in the life of Christ was commemorated at Epiphany; the first miracle He performed at Cana in Galilee when He turned water into wine (John 2:1-11).

December 25 was the traditional date for the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). Already celebrated as the birth of the god Mithras, it was instituted as the festival of the Unconquered Sun by the Emperor Aurelian in 274.

It is not difficult to see parallels between these pagan feasts and the Christian festivals. Christ is the Lord of the Ages, which typologically links Him with Aion, and the Baptism could be said to be typologically linked to the ceremony of drawing water from the Nile.

Before Aurelian proclaimed the Day of the Unconquered Sun (Dies solis invicti) Christ had already been linked with the prophecy of Malachi (4:2) and received the title "Sun of Righteousness". That the Church might have wished to replace a feast of Sol Invictus by that of the Sun of Righteousness, and the birth of Mithras with the birth of Christ, seems plausible.

However, surviving documentation does not support the substitution thesis, although there could be little doubt that replacement of the pagan festivals by Christian festivals would have been seen as beneficial. However, the calendrical placement of such major festivals as Theophany and the Nativity required concrete Christian argument.

It was widely believed that the conception of Christ, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion occurred on the same date, an early favourite being April 6. Counting nine months from April 6 we arrive at January 6 for the Nativity.

However, there was a rival contender for the Annunciation, March 25, which is the conventional date for the (Northern Hemisphere) spring equinox on the Julian calendar. Nine months on brings us to December 25, the winter solstice. This reasoning coincided with a belief that the conception of John the Forerunner, according to the Gospel six months before that of Christ, had occurred at the autumn equinox. This also gives us December 25 for the Nativity of Christ.

The Mystery of the Incarnation

If the creation of a distinct feast of the Nativity transferred to December 25 was inevitable, there was nevertheless a penalty to be paid. What are in fact different aspects of one and the same mystery, the Mystery of the Manifestation of God (Theophany) on Earth, the putting on flesh and revealing to humanity of the eternal Word of the Father through the power and working of the Holy Spirit, are now distributed between two festivals twelve days apart.

At Christmas we behold the mysterious birth of Christ in the privacy of a cave. The image of the helpless newborn babe emphasises the humanity of Christ and the selfemptying (kenosis) of the Godhead. This is well-expressed in the icon of the Nativity with its homely and pastoral scenes of the midwives preparing to bath the infant, the shepherds with their flocks in the fields and Jesus' fosterfather, Joseph, pensively confronting his doubts.

But that the event is also one of supreme cosmic import is revealed through the symbolic representation of the divine light breaking through into the created world, the choir of adoring angels and the star of Bethlehem marking the place where the child lay with His mother.

As is stressed in the Western Epiphany tradition, the Christ-child is not only worshipped by Jewish shepherds but by the Gentile Magi from the East. Matthew records neither the number nor the rank of the Magi. However, a tradition takes them to be three kings; earthly kings paying tribute to the King of Heaven and presenting the infant with gifts of gold (symbolic of kingship), frankincense (symbolic of divinity) and myrrh (symbolic of burial, and a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ's Passion).

The poor uneducated shepherds and the wealthy learned Magi are representative of the Jews and the Gentiles, and of the poor and rich, ignorant and learned, for Christ came to save all humanity.

Following the pilgrimage of the Magi, all is silence in the Gospels save for the one incident when Joseph and Mary lose Jesus, aged twelve, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, only to find Him disputing with the scholars in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52).

For thirty years the mystery of the Incarnation lies hidden from public view, being partially revealed only to a very small number of individuals. But then the prophet John is called to prepare the way for the revealing of the Messiah through the baptism of repentance.

Now, amidst the crowds who came to hear John's preaching and receive baptism, Jesus is proclaimed by John and manifested as the eternal Word and Son of God. Having received baptism at the hand of John:

.. the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven "Thou art my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21b-22 RSV).

Clearly, then, the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ are but aspects of the one Mystery of God Incarnate. The whole period from December 25 through January 6 should therefore be thought of as a single festival, analogous to the fifty days of Pascha which are bounded by Easter Sunday and the Sunday of Pentecost/Trinity, the Eighth Sunday of Pascha.

The "Twelve Days of Christmas" are indeed a continuous, fast-free festival which takes us from the Nativity to Epiphany. (This continuous festival is not broken by the fast observed on January 5 as this is strictly the Communion fast for the Vigil Liturgy, which should be celebrated late afternoon/early evening.)

Fire and Water

In Orthodoxy, the Epiphany/Theophany is also known as "The Feast of Lights". At first sight this might seem a little odd for surely there are better claimants to the title? At Pascha the unwaning light of the Risen Christ pours forth into the darkened world from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and, in imitation of the Holy Fire, into our darkened parish churches.

At Christmas, "the true light that enlightens every man (John 1:9)" takes on human flesh and dwells amongst us. And isn't it at the Meeting/Presentation (February 2) that Simeon prophesies that the divine child is destined to be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel (Luke 2:32)"? Moreover it is this feast that is as "Candlemas" because in the Western rite candles are blessed and carried in procession; a feast of lights indeed.

The meaning of the title becomes clearer, however, when we recall that Christmas and Epiphany are in reality two aspects of one and the same mystery and that it is this mystery, the Mystery of the Incarnation, which can truly be called the Feast of Lights. It is at this festival that the light of the Godhead comes into the world and the Holy Trinity is manifested through the signs of Our Lord's baptism. Further, Christ's baptism is the prototype of our own baptismal enlightenment, "enlightenment" being an early name for baptism.

In the broader understanding, the Presentation/Meeting also belongs within this unitary Mystery since it is the feast that brings the Christmas-Epiphany season, which commenced with the first day of the Nativity fast, November 15, to its close.

But this said, light is in fact very much a theme of the liturgy of January 6. At Christ's baptism the fire of the Godhead descends into the Jordan, thereby driving out the hostile influences that were believed to inhabit the river (personified, in pagan iconographic style, as "Jordan" in icons of the feast), and sanctifies the waters:

The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid.
The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering the stream.

(The Great Blessing of the Waters, Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, The Festal Menaion, Faber & Faber.)

Today we know from science that the universe is composed of a vast array of elements. But this does not invalidate the matter theory of Antiquity from the perspective of everyday experience. According to the Ancient view, everything (except the heavens) around us is made up of varying proportions of just four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Because through baptism we participate in the baptism of Christ, and put on Christ, the elements of which we are composed are sanctified.

The rite of the Great Blessing of the Waters originated as the sanctifying of the water of the font. Epiphany was one of the five festivals on which baptism was administered (in even earlier times it was, in normal circumstances, only celebrated once, at the Paschal Vigil). So the sanctified Epiphany water we sprinkle and drink is Spirit filled baptismal water which, by virtue of Our Lord's baptism, possesses great power for every need, from the driving off of evil spirits to the blessing of houses.

In terms of modern science, water is a very remarkable substance. We ourselves are around 65% water and it was from the seas and other bodies of water that the evolution of life was set on its course. The numerical values of almost all of its properties are physically and chemically anomalous. Had its properties been even slightly different then organisms would not exist and the universe would be totally unlike the one we know.

Recently my wife and I saw some of the remarkable stromatolites found in Western Australia. Stromatolites are formed in water by layers of mats of cyanobacteria and can take a column-like form, as is the case with those at Lake Thetis in the photograph. Some living stromatolites in WA are around 1000 years old but fossilised stromatolites found in the Pilbara have been dated to around 3,500 million years ago, making them amongst the earliest forms of life known.

Liturgical theology does not depend on science, whether Ancient, Modern or Pseudo. None the less, science can often deepen our understanding of sacramental signs. That it is through baptismal water that we are reborn, recreated, should come as no surprise to the scientifically literate. In His baptism in Jordan Christ sanctified the waters, indeed all the elements.

Guy Freeland lectures in Hermeneutics and Liturgical Studies at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney.


This article first appeared in The Greek Australian Vema in December 2009.