Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 5, 1978
Epiphany: The King's Visit Is Near
By Jeremy Miller, OP
My December article on the history of Christmas gave some indications of the origin of the Feast of Epiphany among Eastern Christians on January 6 and of its subsequent adoption by the Western Church. There are two prominent themes connected with this joyous feast: manifestation (which roughly translates the Greek word "epiphaneia") and light.
The Eastern Christians celebrated three manifestations of divine power in this feast: the visit of the Magi, which symbolized the homage paid by the pagan world to the newly-born Lord; Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan, from which time his ministry of preaching in power began; the miracle of wine at Cana, which St. John's gospel calls the first of the great "signs." How these three elements coalesced into this one feast can only be surmised. Probably the pagan celebrations of this day played a role.
The ancient Egyptians observed winter solstice on January 6, and they believed that the Nile River acquired miraculous powers at this time. Some texts even say the Nile turned into wine, (to the great delight of the fish, no doubt!). The Christians, who had in the first century experienced the power of Jesus directly in His Word and wonders, and who now experienced the power of Jesus in the liturgy, would quite naturally seek to squelch pagan superstition by celebrating Epiphany in opposition, and construct the feast accordingly.
The feast's theme of light is suggested by the strong baptismal tones of the texts. Baptism brings enlightenment, and this is emphasized in the Eastern Liturgies where the feast in fact is called the "Feast of Lights." The Western Church, for some reason, chose to emphasize the visit of the Magi, with the Jordan baptism and the Cana miracle made secondary.
A number of interesting (and curious) customs arose in connection with Epiphany. From ancient times the Eastern Church has blessed baptismal water on this day; our Western Church does this at the Easter Vigil. There was a custom -- I don't know if it still continues -- of blessing the River Jordan in Palestine. The date of Easter, as you know, is "movable," i.e. varies each year. In ancient times it was the prerogative of the Archbishop of Alexandria to determine and announce to the other Eastern Churches the Easter date, and this was dramatically done after the Gospel of the Epiphany liturgy. In the West it became a custom to bless homes and chalk on Epiphany, and with the chalk to write above the door the traditional names of the Magi: Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar.
Best of all, I like the Puerto Rican custom, still vigorous to this day, of driving madly about the island on January 6, visiting friends and sipping the most delicious concoction of coconut milk and rum. As the day runs on, the rum gets stronger and the driving wilder.
A special prayer on Epiphany evening, said by the family gathered at supper, for blessings on the household during 1978, would be a neat thing. Have a happy epiphany.