1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Epiphany, Feast of

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EPIPHANY, FEAST OF. The word epiphany, in Greek, signifies an apparition of a divine being. It was used as a singular or a plural, both in its Greek and Latin forms, according as one epiphany was contemplated or several united in a single commemoration. For in the East from an early time were associated with the feast of the Baptism of Christ commemorations of the physical birth, of the Star of the Magi, of the miracles of Cana, and of the feeding of the five thousand. The commemoration of the Baptism was also called by the Greek fathers of the 4th century the Theophany or Theophanies, and the Day of Lights, i.e. of the Illumination of Jesus or of the Light which shone in the Jordan. In the Teutonic west it has become the Festival of the three kings (i.e. the Magi), or simply Twelfth day. Leo the Great called it the Feast of the Declaration; Fulgentius, of the Manifestation; others, of the Apparition of Christ.

In the following article it is attempted to ascertain the date of institution of the Epiphany feast, its origin, and its significance and development.

Clement of Alexandria first mentions it. Writing c. 194 he states that the Basilidians feasted the day of the Baptism, devoting the whole night which preceded it to lections of the scriptures. They fixed it in the 15th year of Tiberius, on the 15th or 11th of the month Tobi, dates of the Egyptian fixed calendar equivalent to January 10th and 6th. When Clement wrote the great church had not adopted the feast, but toward A.D. 300 it was widely in vogue. Thus the Acts of Philip the Martyr, bishop of Heraclea in Thrace, A.D. 304, mention the “holy day of the Epiphany.” Note the singular. Origen seems not to have heard of it as a feast of the Catholic church, but Hippolytus (died c. 235) recognized it in a homily which may be genuine.

In the age of the Nicene Council, A.D. 325, the primate of Alexandria was charged at every Epiphany Feast to announce to the churches in a “Festal Letter” the date of the forthcoming Easter. Several such letters written by Athanasius and others remain. In the churches so addressed the feast of Jan. 6 must have been already current.

In Jerusalem, according to the Epistle of Macarius[1] to the Armenians, c. 330, the feast was kept with zeal and splendour, and was with Easter and Pentecost a favourite season for Baptism.

We have evidence of the 4th century from Spain that a long fast marked the season of Advent, and prepared for the feast of Epiphany on the 6th of January. The council of Saragossa c. 380 enacted that for 21 days, from the 17th of December to the 6th of January, the Epiphany, the faithful should not dance or make merry, but steadily frequent the churches. The synod of Lerida in 524 went further and forbade marriages during Advent. Our earliest Spanish lectionary, the Liber comicus of Toledo, edited by Don Morin (Anecd. Maredsol. vol. i.), provides lections for five Sundays in Advent, and the gospel lections[2] chosen regard the Baptism of Christ, not His Birth, of which the feast, like that of the Annunciation, is mentioned, but not yet dated, December 25 being assigned to St Stephen. It is odd that for “the Apparition of the Lord” the lection Matt. ii. 1-15 is assigned, although the lections for Advent belong to a scheme which identified Epiphany with the Baptism. This anomaly we account for below. The old editor of the Mozarabic Liturgy, Fr. Antonio Lorenzano, notes in his preface § 28 that the Spaniards anciently terminated the Advent season with the Epiphany Feast. In Rome also the earliest fixed system of the ecclesiastical year, which may go back to 300, makes Epiphany the caput festorum or chief of feasts. The Sundays of Advent lead up to it, and the first Sundays of the year are “The Sunday within the octave of Epiphany,” “the first Sunday after,” and so forth. December 25 is no critical date at all. In Armenia as early as 450 a month of fasting prepared for the Advent of the Lord at Epiphany, and the fast was interpreted as a reiteration of John the Baptist’s season of Repentance.

In Antioch as late as about 386 Epiphany and Easter were the two great feasts, and the physical Birth of Christ was not yet feasted. On the eve of Epiphany after nightfall the springs and rivers were blessed, and water was drawn from them and stored for the whole year to be used in lustrations and baptisms. Such water, says Chrysostom, to whose orations we owe the information, kept pure and fresh for one, two and three years, and like good wine actually improved the longer it was kept. Note that Chrysostom speaks of the Feast of the Epiphanies, implying two, one of the Baptism, the other of the Second Advent, when Christ will be manifested afresh, and we with him in glory. This Second Epiphany inspired, as we saw, the choice of Pauline lections in the Liber comicus. But the salient event commemorated was the Baptism, and Chrysostom almost insists on this as the exclusive significance of the feast:—“It was not when he was born that he became manifest to all, but when he was baptized.” In his commentary on Ezekiel Jerome employs the same language absconditus est et non apparuit, by way of protest against an interpretation of the Feast as that of the Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, which was essayed as early as 375 by Epiphanius in Cyprus, and was being enforced in Jerome’s day by John, bishop of Jerusalem. Epiphanius boldly removed the date of the Baptism to the 8th of November. “January 6” (= Tobi 11), he writes, “is the day of Christ’s Birth, that is, of the Epiphanies.” He uses the plural, because he adds on January 6 the commemoration of the water miracle of Cana. Although in 375 he thus protested that January 6 was the day “of the Birth after the Flesh,” he became before the end of the century a convert, according to John of Nice, to the new opinion that December 25 was the real day of this Birth. That as early as about 385, January 6 was kept as the physical birthday in Jerusalem, or rather in Bethlehem, we know from a contemporary witness of it, the lady pilgrim of Gaul, whose peregrinatio, recently discovered by Gamurrini, is confirmed by the old Jerusalem Lectionary preserved in Armenian.[3] Ephraem the Syrian father is attested already by Epiphanius (c. 375) to have celebrated the physical birth on January 6. His genuine Syriac hymns confirm this, but prove that the Baptism, the Star of the Magi, and the Marriage at Cana were also commemorated on the same day. That the same union prevailed in Rome up to the year 354 may be inferred from Ambrose. Philastrius (De haer. ch. 140) notes that some abolished the Epiphany feast and substituted a Birth feast. This was between 370 and 390.

In 385 Pope Siricius[4] calls January 6 Natalicia, “the Birthday of Christ or of Apparition,” and protests against the Spanish custom (at Tarragona) of baptizing on that day—another proof that in Spain in the 4th century it commemorated the Baptism. In Gaul at Vienna in 360 Julian the Apostate, out of deference to Christian feeling, went to church “on the festival which they keep in January and call Epiphania.” So Ammianus; but Zonaras in his Greek account of the event calls it the day of the Saviour’s Birth.

Why the feast of the Baptism was called the feast or day of the Saviour’s Birth, and why fathers of that age when they call Christmas the birthday constantly qualify and add the words “in the flesh,” we are able to divine from Pope Leo’s (c. 447) 18th Epistle to the bishops of Sicily. For here we learn that in Sicily they held that in His Baptism the Saviour was reborn through the Holy Spirit. “The Lord,” protests Leo, “needed no remission of sins, no remedy of rebirth.” The Sicilians also baptized neophytes on January 6, “because baptism conveyed to Jesus and to them one and the same grace.” Not so, argues Leo, the Lord sanctioned and hallowed the power of regeneration, not when He was baptized, but “when the blood of redemption and the water of baptism flowed forth from his side.” Neophytes should therefore be baptized at Easter and Pentecost alone, never at Epiphany.

Fortune has preserved to us among the Spuria of several Latin fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Maximus of Turin, various homilies for Sundays of the Advent fast and for Epiphany. The Advent lections of these homilists were much the same as those of the Spanish Liber comicus; and they insist on Advent being kept as a strict fast, without marriage celebrations. Their Epiphany lection is however Matt. iii. 1-17, which must therefore have once on a time been assigned in the Liber comicus also in harmony with its general scheme. The psalms used on the day are, cxiii. (cxiv.) “When Israel went forth,” xxviii. (xxix.) “Give unto the Lord,” and xxii. (xxiii.) “the Lord is my Shepherd.” The same lection of Matthew and also Ps. xxix. are noted for Epiphany in the Greek oration for the day ascribed to Hippolytus, which is at least earlier than 300, and also in special old Epiphany rites for the Benediction of the waters found in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, &c. Now by these homilists as by Chrysostom,[5] the Baptism is regarded as the occasion on which “the Saviour first appeared after the flesh in the world or on earth.” These words were classical to the homilists, who explain them as best they can. The baptism is also declared to have been “the consecration of Christ,” and “regeneration of Christ and a strengthening of our faith,” to have been “Christ’s second nativity.” “This second birth hath more renown than his first . . . for now the God of majesty is inscribed (as his father), but then (at his first birth) Joseph the Carpenter was assumed to be his father ... he hath more honour who cries aloud from Heaven (viz. God the Father), than he who labours upon earth” (viz. Joseph).[6]

Similarly the old ordo Romanus of the age of Pepin (given by Montfaulcon in his preface to the Mozarabic missal in Migne, Patr. Latina, 85, col. 46), under the rubric of the Vigil of the Theophany, insists that “the second birth of Christ (in Baptism) being distinguished by so many mysteries (e.g. the miracle of Cana) is more honoured than the first” (birth from Mary).

These homilies mostly belong to an age (? 300–400) when the commemoration of the physical Birth had not yet found its own day (Dec. 25), and was therefore added alongside of the Baptism on January 6. Thus the two Births, the physical and the spiritual, of Jesus were celebrated on one and the same day, and one homily contains the words: “Not yet is the feast of his origin fully completed, and already we have to celebrate the solemn commemoration of his Baptism. He has hardly been born humanwise, and already he is being reborn in sacramental wise. For to-day, though after a lapse of many annual cycles, he was hallowed (or consecrated) in Jordan. So the Lord arranged as to link rite with rite; I mean, in such wise as to be brought forth through the Virgin and to be begotten through the mystery (i.e. sacrament) in one and the same season.” Another homily preserved in a MS. of the 7th or 8th century and assigned to Maximus of Turin declares that the Epiphany was known as the Birthday of Jesus, either because He was then born of the Virgin or reborn in baptism. This also was the classical defence made by Armenian fathers of their custom of keeping the feast of the Birth and Baptism together on January 6. They argued from Luke’s gospel that the Annunciation took place on April 6, and therefore the Birth on January 6. The Baptism was on Christ’s thirtieth birthday, and should therefore be also kept on January 6. Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 550) relates that on the same grounds believers of Jerusalem joined the feasts. All such reasoning was of course après coup. As late as the 9th century the Armenians had at least three discrepant dates for the Annunciation—January 5, January 9, April 6; and of these January 5 and 9 were older than April 6, which they perhaps borrowed from Epiphanius’s commentary on the Gospels. The old Latin homilist, above quoted, hits the mark when he declares that the innate logic of things required the Baptism (which must, he says, be any how called a natal or birth festival) to fall on the same day as Christmas—Ratio enim exigit. Of the argument from the 6th of April as the date of the Annunciation he knows nothing. The 12th century Armenian Patriarch Nerses, like this homilist, merely rests his case against the Greeks, who incessantly reproached the Armenians for ignoring their Christmas on December 25, on the inherent logic of things, as follows:

“Just as he was born after the flesh from the holy virgin, so he was born through baptism and from the Jordan, by way of example unto us. And since there are here two births, albeit differing one from the other in mystic import and in point of time, therefore it was appointed that we should feast them together, as the first, so also the second birth.”

The Epiphany feast had therefore in its own right acquired the name of natalis dies or birthday, as commemorating the spiritual rebirth of Jesus in Jordan, before the natalis in carne, the Birthday in the flesh, as Jerome and others call it, was associated with it. This idea was condemned as Ebionite in the 3rd century, yet it influences Christian writers long before and long afterwards. So Tertullian says: “We little fishes (pisciculi), after the example of our great fish (ἰχθύν) Jesus Christ the Lord, are born (gignimur) in the water, nor except by abiding in the water are we in a state of salvation.” And Hilary, like the Latin homilists cited above, writes of Jesus that “he was born again through baptism, and then became Son of God,” adding that the Father cried, when he had gone up out of the water, “My Son art thou, I have this day begotten thee” (Luke iii. 22). “But this,” he adds, “was with the begetting of a man who is being reborn; on that occasion too he himself was being reborn unto God to be perfect son; as he was son of man, so in baptism, he was constituted son of God as well.” The idea frequently meets us in Hilary; it occurs in the Epiphany hymn of the orthodox Greek church, and in the Epiphany hymns and homilies of the Armenians.

A letter is preserved by John of Nice of a bishop of Jerusalem to the bishop of Rome which attests a temporary union of both feasts on January 6 in the holy places. The faithful, it says, met before dawn at Bethlehem to celebrate the Birth from the Virgin in the cave; but before their hymns and lections were finished they had to hurry off to Jordan, 13 m. the other side of Jerusalem, to celebrate the Baptism, and by consequence neither commemoration could be kept fully and reverently. The writer therefore begs the pope to look in the archives of the Jews brought to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem, and to ascertain from them the real date of Christ’s birth. The pope looked in the works of Josephus and found it to be December 25. The letter’s genuineness has been called in question; but revealing as it does the Church’s ignorance of the date of the Birth, the inconvenience and precariousness of its association with the Baptism, the recency of its separate institution, it could not have been invented. It is too tell-tale a document. Not the least significant fact about it is that it views the Baptism as an established feast which cannot be altered and set on another date. Not it but the physical birth must be removed from January 6 to another date. It has been shown above that perhaps as early as 380 the difficulty was got over in Jerusalem by making the Epiphany wholly and solely a commemoration of the miraculous birth, and suppressing the commemoration of the Baptism. Therefore this letter must have been written—or, if invented, then invented before that date. Chrysostom seems to have known of it, for in his Epiphany homily preached at Antioch, c. 392 (op. vol. ii. 354, ed. Montf.), he refers to the archives at Rome as the source from which the date December 25 could be confirmed, and declares that he had obtained it from those who dwell there, and who observing it from the beginning and by old tradition, had communicated it to the East. The question arises why the feast of the Baptism was set on January 6 by the sect of Basilides? And why the great church adopted the date? Now we know what sort of considerations influenced this sect in fixing other feasts, so we have a clue. They fixed the Birth of Jesus on Pachon 25 (= May 20), the day of the Niloa, or feast of the descent of the Nile from heaven. We should thus expect January 6 to be equally a Nile festival. And this from various sources we know it was. On Tobi 11, says Epiphanius[7] (c. 370), every one draws up water from the river and stores it up, not only in Egypt itself, but in many other countries. In many places, he adds, springs and rivers turn into wine on this day, e.g. at Cibyra in Caria and Gerasa in Arabia. Aristides Rhetor (c. 160) also relates how in the winter, which began with Tobi, the Nile water was at its purest. Its water, he says, if drawn at the right time conquers time, for it does not go bad, whether you keep it on the spot or export it. Galleys were waiting on a certain night to take it on board and transport it to Italy and elsewhere for libations and lustrations in the Temples of Isis. “Such water,” he adds, “remained fresh, long after other water supplies had gone bad. The Egyptians filled their pitchers with this water, as others did with wine; they stored it in their houses for three or four years or more, and recommended it the more, the older it grew, just as the Greeks did their wines.”

Two centuries later Chrysostom, as we have seen, commends in identical terms the water blessed and drawn from the rivers at the Baptismal feast. It is therefore probable that the Basilidian feast was a Christianized form of the blessing of the Nile, called by Chabas in his Coptic calendar Hydreusis. Mas‘ūdī the Arab historian of the 10th century, in his Prairies d’or (French trans. Paris, 1863, ii. 364), enlarges on the splendours of this feast as he saw it still celebrated in Egypt.

Epiphanius also (Haer. 51) relates a curious celebration held at Alexandria of the Birth of the Aeon. On January 5 or 6 the votaries met in the holy compound or Temple of the Maiden (Korē), and sang hymns to the music of the flute till dawn, when they went down with torches into a shrine under ground, and fetched up a wooden idol on a bier representing Korē, seated and naked, with crosses marked on her brow, her hands and her knees. Then with flute-playing, hymns and dances they carried the image seven times round the central shrine, before restoring it again to its dwelling-place below. He adds: “And the votaries say that to-day at this hour Korē, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.”

Epiphanius says this was a heathen rite, but it rather resembles some Basilidian or Gnostic commemoration of the spiritual birth of the Divine life in Jesus of the Christhood, from the older creation the Ecclesia.

The earliest extant Greek text of the Epiphany rite is in a Euchologion of about the year 795, now in the Vatican. The prayers recite that at His baptism Christ hallowed the waters by His presence in Jordan,[8] and ask that they may now be blessed by the Holy Spirit visiting them, by its power and inworking, as the streams of Jordan were blessed. So they will be able to purify soul and body of all who draw up and partake of them. The hymn sung contains such clauses as these:

“To-day the grace of the Holy Spirit hallowing the waters appears (ἐπιφαίνεται, cf. Epiphany) . . . To-day the systems of waters spread out their backs under the Lord’s footsteps. To-day the unseen is seen, that he may reveal himself to us. To-day the Increate is of his own will ordained (lit. hath hands laid on him) by his own creature. To-day the Unbending bends his neck to his own servant, in order to free us from servitude. To-day we were liberated from darkness and are illumined by light of divine knowledge. To-day for us the Lord by means of rebirth (lit. palingenesy) of the Image reshapes the Archetype.”

This last clause is obscure. In the Armenian hymns the ideas of the rebirth not only of believers, but of Jesus, and of the latter’s ordination by John, are very prominent.

The history of the Epiphany feast may be summed up thus:—

From the Jews the Church took over the feasts of Pascha and Pentecost; and Sunday was a weekly commemoration of the Resurrection. It was inevitable, however, that believers should before long desire to commemorate the Baptism, with which the oldest form of evangelical tradition began, and which was widely regarded as the occasion when the divine life began in Jesus; when the Logos or Holy Spirit appeared and rested on Him, conferring upon Him spiritual unction as the promised Messiah; when, according to an old reading of Luke iii. 22, He was begotten of God. Perhaps the Ebionite Christians of Palestine first instituted the feast, and this, if a fact, must underlie the statement of John of Nice, a late but well-informed writer (c. 950), that it was fixed by the disciples of John the Baptist who were present at Jesus’ Baptism. The Egyptian gnostics anyhow had the feast and set it on January 6, a day of the blessing of the Nile. It was a feast of Adoptionist complexion, as one of its names, viz. the Birthday (Greek γενέθλια, Latin Natalicia or Natalis dies), implies. This explains why in east and west the feast of the physical Birth was for a time associated with it; and to justify this association it was suggested that Jesus was baptized just on His thirtieth birthday. In Jerusalem and Syria it was perhaps the Ebionite or Adoptionist, we may add also the Gnostic, associations of the Baptism that caused this aspect of Epiphany to be relegated to the background, so that it became wholly a feast of the miraculous birth. At the same time other epiphanies of Christ were superadded, e.g. of Cana where Christ began His miracles by turning water into wine and manifested forth His glory, and of the Star of the Magi. Hence it is often called the Feast of Epiphanies (in the plural). In the West the day is commonly called the Feast of the three kings, and its early significance as a commemoration of the Baptism and season of blessing the waters has been obscured; the Eastern churches, however, of Greece, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Egypt, Syria have been more conservative. In the far East it is still the season of seasons for baptisms, and in Armenia children born long before are baptized at it. Long ago it was a baptismal feast in Sicily, Spain, Italy (see Pope Gelasius to the Lucanian Bishops), Africa and Ireland. In the Manx prayer-book of Bishop Phillips of the year 1610 Epiphany is called the “little Nativity” (La nolicky bigge), and the Sunday which comes between December 25 and January 6 is “the Sunday between the two Nativities,” or Jih dúni oedyr ’a Nolick; Epiphany itself is the “feast of the water vessel,” lail ymmyrt uyskey, or “of the well of water,” Chibbyrt uysky.

Authorities.—Gregory Nazianz., Orat. xli.; Suicer, Thesaurus, s.v. ἐπιφάνεια; Cotelerius In constit. Apost. (Antwerp, 1698), lib. v. cap. 13; R. Bingham, Antiquities (London, 1834), bk. xx.; Ad. Jacoby, Bericht über die Taufe Jesu (Strassburg, 1902); H. Blumenbach, Antiquitates Epiphaniorum (Leipzig, 1737); J. L. Schulze, De festo Sanctorum Luminum, ed. J. E. Volbeding (Leipzig, 1841); and K. A. H. Kellner, Heortologie (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1906). (See also the works enumerated under Christmas.)  (F. C. C.) 

  1. For its text see The Key of Truth, translated by F. C. Conybeare, Oxford, and the article Armenian Church.
  2. These are Matt. iii. 1-11, xi. 2-15, xxi. 1-9; Mark i. 1-8; Luke iii. 1-18. The Pauline lections regard the Epiphany of the Second Advent, of the prophetic or Messianic kingdom.
  3. Translated in Rituale Armenorum (Oxford, 1905).
  4. Epist. ad Himerium, c. 2.
  5. Hom. I. in Pentec. op. tom. ii. 458; “With us the Epiphanies is the first festival. What is this festival’s significance? This, that God was seen upon earth and consorted with men.” For this idea there had soon to be substituted that of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
  6. See the Paris edition of Augustine (1838), tom. v., Appendix, Sermons cxvi., cxxv., cxxxv., cxxxvi., cxxxvii.; cf. tom. vi. dial. quaestionum, xlvi.; Maximus of Turin, Homily xxx.
  7. Perhaps Epiphanius is here, after his wont, transcribing an earlier source.
  8. The same idea is frequent in Epiphany homilies of Chrysostom and other 4th-century fathers.