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The Feast of Epiphany: The Feast of Lights

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Rev. George Mastrantonis

The Development of the Feasts

The celebrations of the Events of the life of Jesus Christ as they are celebrated today were not instituted at the very beginning of the Christian era; they were held by the believers of the early Church as vivid commemorations without a connection with certain days and hymns, but as a real Event of the Lord Who was present in the Church. Later on, when the Church was firmly established and its believers were free to worship the True God, they decided to commemorate and observe annually in the calendar year the events of the life of the Church and especially those of the Life and Person of Jesus Christ, whom they worshiped along with the Father and the Holy Ghost with prayers, hymns, and readings appropriate for the occasion. The reason why the first Christians did not institute these celebrations and observances at the very beginning is mainly because of the persecutions of the Church and its believers.

For three entire centuries, the Church of Christ was underground, in catacombs, where under the grass and flowers of the earth was nourished the tree of faith and worship. The Church extended the Kingdom of God to the hearts of its faithful without pompous expressions. These winding underground centers, the catacombs, were both the workshop of the rebirth of the Christians and also their burial places.

It is not our purpose here to develop further the struggles and faith of the early Church of Christ which, since then, has made the Church of the Living God "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." What we wish to emphasize is that during the first three centuries the Church of Christ developed a clear ecclesiastical conscience both in theory and in practice; the Church formulated the principles of faith and worship and defended them with enormous sacrifices, fighting off both external and internal falsifications.

For three centuries, the Church developed its roots under the earth and watered them with the moisture of its catacombs and the blood of its martyrs. The Church spread its roots from Antioch to Rome. Alexandria, Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Athens also opened underground centers of the Christian faith which were warmed and brightened by the torches of devotion, sacrifice, and the cultivation of Christian character and conscience.

When the fullness of time came, that is, when the roots were ready to present an incorruptible trunk above the earth, then Divine Providence appointed political conditions and a remarkable personality, Constantine the Great, who not so much from a religious outlook as from a political foresight, gave to the Church of Christ the right of free exercise in matters of faith and worship. This action of expediency was initiated and imposed by the emperor.

The Church of Christ came out of its refuge from the persecutions armed with the strength of love among its members and equipped for defense and for missionary endeavors. Now the Church could freely apply its principles. The Church's first concern was the development of its prayer and worship, which ratify the faith and cultivate the relations of its members. This is why the 4th century is the golden link which connects the underground life of the church with its later course on the surface of the earth. The celebrations of Epiphany and Christmas, the writing of divine liturgies, the formulation of faith in the Creed, and so many other incidents are permanent foundations which took place during the 4th century and which developed as flowers springing from roots which had existed beforehand.

The life of the Church has kept the fragrance of these unwithering flowers until today, and their aroma has given to civilization the precious Christian atmosphere which we breathe today. If we of today hold lamps and torches in our hands and in our hearts, this light has been transmitted from the lamps and torches which were held burning by the men and women of the catacombs who gave this inheritance of faith from their hearts.

The Witness of the Son of God

JANUARY the 6th is recorded in the annals of the Christian Church as an ancient celebration of an event in the life of Jesus Christ which is considered as the beginning of His official dedication to His Divine Mission in the presence and manifestation of the Triune Christian God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This celebration is called Epiphany, a combined Greek word which is derived from epi: to and phainein: to show, to show forth, to shine upon; the noun is epiphaneia, meaning appearance, manifestation. This Feast included the Birth of Jesus Christ (that is, the Incarnation of the Logos), His Baptism (that is, His dedication in a human manner), and the appearance of the Father and the Holy Spirit-the first and only united appearance of the true Christian God. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, "filled with the Holy Spirit", said in anticipation, "whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." 1

The story of Epiphany is related by the first three Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, from the Baptist's proclamation of the arrival of the Savior, to the baptism of Christ and to the witness of the Father and the descending of "the Spirit as a Dove." 2 The Evangelist John, on the other hand, preserves John's witness of the divinity of Christ. 3 John the Baptist proclaimed the arrival of the Savior, saying that "one mightier than I is coming after Me"; 4 that "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire"; 5 and "will gather the wheat into his barn." 6 The dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist resulted in the recognition and proclamation of Jesus' divinity and mission.(2a)

"WHEN Jesus had been baptized...behold" 7 the appearance of the Holy Trinity took place: (i) the "heaven was opened, and (ii) the Holy Spirit descended upon him (Jesus) in bodily shape with a dove, and (iii) a voice come from heaven which said, "Thou art my beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased," as St. Luke relates the divine event 8 along with the other two sacred writers. The baptism of Jesus Christ was not "with water unto repentance" 9 as was John's; the Divine and sinless One needed neither repentance nor remission of sins. Therefore, "John forbade him (Jesus to be baptized) saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" 10 Furthermore, the important statement of Jesus to John the Baptist implies that Jesus felt that baptism was not necessary for Him, but He submits to the rite because, "it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness"; 11 that is, all people (us) should submit their duty and obligation to God.

The reason that John the Baptist was "baptizing with water" was "that he (the Lamb of God) might be revealed to Israel", and John bore witness to this Divine Event, fulfilling his mission and saying, "I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." 12/13 By this witness the Church treasured and established the belief that "When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was manifested" 14, which belief has remained as the cornerstone of the Christian Church ever since. All believers in the past "drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ" 15 as the Apostle Paul aptly unites the past, the present and the future in the person of Christ as the God-Man and Godhead.

History of the Celebration of Epiphany

THE EVENTS of the Baptism of Jesus Christ and the appearance of the Holy Trinity, as they are recorded in the Bible, were held with reverence and admiration over the period of the years. With the end of the persecutions, the contents of these events were developed in the observance of the feast of Epiphany which is called the Feast of Lights. The origin of the observance of the celebration of the Epiphany is to be found in the activities of Gnosticism. Its fundamental principle is the idea that individual salvation comes through knowledge, gnosis, rather than through faith or works.

The 6th of January was designated as the feast day of Epiphany because on that day was the birthday of Aeon, the patron god of Alexandria. The Gnostics had designated Christ as one of the Aeons in their elaborate system.

In opposition to these heretics, it appears that the Orthodox Church acted to protect its followers from this falsification by defining the Theophany of the Holy Trinity, that is, the appearance of God during the Baptism of Christ. 16 The earliest definite evidence of this celebration is given by Ammianus Marcellinus 17 where this pagan Roman historian mentions that Julian the Apostate participated in this feast day in Vienne of Gaul. The Orthodox Church gave to this Feast its correct significance and meaning and celebrated purposely this Feast on the same date to counteract the false celebration of the Gnostics. In all probability, Epiphany was introduced to Gaul, with its Greek name, by St. Athanasius (336), coming from Alexandria.

It is known that in the East the Nativity of Christ was celebrated together with Epiphany on the 6th of January, while in the West the Nativity was celebrated before Epiphany became known to them. This fact seems to account for the difference in the content of Epiphany as given by the East and the West. That is, in the East, the celebration centered in the Theophany of Christ witnessed by the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity and in connection with the Birth of Christ. The Armenian Monophysites, who have preserved the ancient tradition of combining the Nativity with Epiphany, still celebrate the Nativity of Christ on the evening of January 5th and Epiphany with the Sanctification of the Waters on the 6th of January.

In the Western Church, Epiphany is dedicated to the commemoration of three events: (i) the baptism of Jesus; (ii) the visit of the Wisemen to Bethlehem, and (iii) the miracle of Cana (the changing of the water into wine), by which the Western Church celebrated the manifestation of Christ to the world and His power to perform miracles.

IN THE EAST, the Nativity, after being introduced from the West, was designated to be observed also on December 25th, probably by the heretic Arians in Antioch. This happened about fifty years after Epiphany was designated. In fact, St. Basil and St. Gregory had attempted to differentiate between the two celebrations by imposing the name "Theophany" on the Birth of Christ, December 25th, and keeping the name "Epiphany" for the celebration on the 6th of January. However, they were unsuccessful.

In the Orthodox Church, in contrast to the heretics, the celebration of Epiphany took on an elaborate appearance for two reasons: first, in opposition to the corresponding celebrations of the heretics and pagans; and, secondly, due to the meaning of the feast day itself, as the worship of the true God of the Holy Trinity, the catechumens came to be baptized on this day,

Seberian, Bishop of Gavalon, 18 remarks that in the Church there was great abundance of light on this feast day because the Christians carried lighted candles. The same is mentioned by Ephraim the Syrian in his hymn to Epiphany (9th verse). Because of this abundance of light, the feast of Epiphany became known as "The Feast of Lights". (Steph. 105a). Gregory of Nazianzos delivered his well-known homily "On the Lights"  19 saying, "yesterday celebrating on the bright day of the lights...today we shall speak on baptism." Since that unforgettable celebration the event has been called the "Feast of Lights."

Ephraim, Chrysostom 20 and others relate that the faithful, before the baptism of the catechumens, received some of the sanctified water which they took to their homes. This service took place on the evening or, rather, at about midnight, of January 5th. And until today the Eastern Church retains this Vesper service with the Sanctification of the Waters, which, however, is performed on the morning of January 5th. In the Church, the Vespers is always considered as the beginning of the next day.

For this reason, the Vespers of January 5th is actually the beginning of the feast-day of the 6th of January.

It was the night before the 6th of January, in the early centuries of the Christian Church, when hundreds of neophytes were waiting their turn to step down, some five steps, into the water and to be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Holding burning torches in their hands, men and women of various streams and walks of life were together. Their figures were illuminated from within, from their conscience, after their training in knowing the true God and practicing their faith in worshiping Him and helping their brethren in His name.

With the prevailing of the baptism of infants, there is no order of catechumens and consequently the practice of baptism at midnight of January 5th has been eliminated. The sanctification of the Waters, though, has prevailed throughout the centuries; it is now a custom that, on the one hand, the people take sanctified Waters to their homes and on the other hand, some of the Priests visit the homes of their parishioners and reverently sprinkle the homes or fields with sanctified Water. (January 5th).

We have related the details on the origin of the feast of Epiphany and the formation of its ceremonial order, first, to emphasize that this feast is most ancient; secondly, to point out the underlying meaning of Epiphany in the East and the West, and, thirdly, to become familiar with the events which transpired during the original Epiphany.

The Service of The Sanctification of the Waters

ON BOTH DAYS, the 5th and 6th of January, The Service of the Blessing of the Waters on the Epiphany takes place. After the Matins and Divine Liturgy, officiated on the celebration of the Epiphany, the Priest comes forth into the center of the Nave (many times outside the Church) to the vessel with clean water. It is a solemn procession when the people or the choir sings the prelude hymn:

The voice of the Lord crieth upon the waters: Come, receive ye all the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of the fear of God, of the manifested Christ.

The faithful is called to receive and to hold the Spirit and sanctification of his heart.

"Let us attend," the deacon cries, let us attend to hear the prophecy, the "Wisdom" of God. And the reader reads three parts from Isaiah beginning with 35,1; 55,1; and 12,3.

Thus saith the Lord: The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the lily. The desert of Jordan shall blossom abundantly...and my people shall see the glory the Lord, and the excellency of our God...He will come and save us...for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert...And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it;...but the redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord...they shall obtain song and joy and gladness.

A heart without faith in God and His Grace is like a desert. Now with His Spirit the desert shall rejoice. The redeemed shall obtain song and joy in His companionship. Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money...Seek ye the Lord, and when ye have found him call ye upon him...and return ye unto the Lord, and he will have mercy.

Do we appreciate the gifts granted to us by the merciful God? Everyone is allowed to participate; everyone who feels the need of the water-it is the only requirement to feel the need of the gift, to seek the Lord, to return unto the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord: Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation...Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things: make this known in all the earth...for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of her (Zion).

There are "wells of salvation" and the faithful is asked to draw water out of it, to draw the Spirit of strength and steadfastness into the faith in God.

It follows the reading of the Apostle (I Cor. 10,7ff.) when Apostle Paul, versed in the rabbinical studies, gives the right interpretations by saying "that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;...and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ."

In our time, when the human spirit is withered, we need to drink, along with our fathers, the same spiritual drink of that spiritual Rock, Christ.

The reading of the Gospel is from St. Mark (1,9) who relates the story of the baptism of Jesus Christ and the Epiphany of the Holy Trinity, as we have mentioned. Thus the readings are completed and followed by the blessings of the waters.

The Deacon says the Petitions responded with the Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy.

Let us beseech the Lord for this water that it may be sanctified by the power and virtue and descent of the Holy Ghost. Let us beseech the Lord for this water that it may be sanctified by the power of the Holy Ghost...For our enlightenment by the light of godliness...for the rendering of this water, a gift of sanctification, a healing of soul and body...averting of every snare of enemies. Let us beseech the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

In the meantime, the Priest is praying inaudibly saying, "O Master, we beseech Thee, sprinkle upon us Thine unworthy servants purifying water which is the gift of Thy compassion..." and continues in a loud voice the prayer of Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, "a work of notification of the Divine Trinity." Speaking of Jesus Christ, the Priest prays: "In the former festival we saw Thee as a babe, but here and now we behold Thee our perfect and manifested God, from Him Who is perfect." And the Priest repeats 23 times various poetical expression of devotion and reverence referring to the Baptism and Epiphany in relation to the divine Providence for the Salvation of man.

Today, he prays, the hour of our festival has come, and the choir of the Saints assists with us, and Angels celebrate together with men. Today, the clouds refresh mankind by raining down righteousness from heaven. Today, the streams of Jordan are changed into healing waters by the presence of the Lord. Today, we are redeemed from darkness and illuminated by the light of the knowledge of God.

And the blessed Patriarch continues saying allegorically: "Jordan was driven back when it saw the fire of the Godhead descending in bodily form and resting upon it." and goes on with four similar verses and at this moment cries: "Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works: no words suffice to praise Thy marvels."

The prayer is long and continues. The Priest exalts: O merciful King, do Thou now be present through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water...and give to it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a ransom from sins, a guard against sickness, a defense against devils, inaccessible to every adverse power, and filled with angelic strength. "Do thou therefore, O Master, sanctify now this water, by Thy Holy Spirit...give sanctification, blessing, cleansing, and health to all those touched, anointed, and partaking thereof."

And straightway, after blessing the waters with the sign of the Cross, the Priest immerses the sacred Cross upright in the water and raises it again, intoning the following dismissal Hymn:

When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was manifested. The voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His Beloved Son; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the immutability of the words. Thou hast appeared, O Christ our God, and hast illuminated all the world; glory to Thee.

The Priest blessing the people chants the hymn, "Thou hast appeared today to the world, and Thy light, O Lord, has been sealed upon us; with full knowledge we praise Thee. Thou hast come, Thou art manifested, O unapproachable Light."

In some cities and towns, a custom prevails that the people after the service, in a solemn procession, go to the nearby rivers or sea shores where the Priest throws the Cross into the waters. Divers are waiting to recover the Cross from the water and return it to the Priest.

The service of the sanctification of the waters is an invocation of God's illumination and wisdom. The faithful participates on this divine occasion as an active member of the sacred Body of Christ-His Church.

After the service, the faithful receives sanctified water and takes it home and reverently drinks of it and sprinkles it around his home and field reciting the dismissal hymn.

Some of the Priests, especially on January 5th or soon after, visit the homes of their parishioners and sprinkle sanctified water in the homes and fields reciting the dismissal hymn.

The Significance of Epiphany for us Today

WHAT MEANING does the annual repetition of Epiphany have for our faith and for our Christian life? If we repeat the "Feast of Lights" for a mere sentimental impression, surely we betray the treasure of this great observance. The feast of Epiphany is not held only as a commemoration of a historical event in the life of Jesus, not merely for the attractiveness of the artificial atmosphere of lights, music, and poetry. The recurrent celebration of Epiphany has a great spiritual significance far beyond either of these. It is not the mere commemoration of a historical event because in the Christian faith everything is present, here and now, for our Lord Jesus Christ is with us here and now, our inseparable Companion and Comforter. The historical event is but a motive and remembrance, for the Person of Christ is ever present, and His Grace is not merely a memory of history. Secondly, the physical environment, artistic or otherwise, many times helps the believer to approach his goal-the vivid worship of our Lord, despite the danger of making this environment an end in itself.

Holding torches and candles in our hands and with our voices and feelings of devotion, together we raise a symbol to the living Christian God-the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit-as He appeared at the moment of the Baptism of Jesus Christ, as He has been determined by the Church in the Creed, as He is accepted by every believing Christian, as the living God, the God Who harkens to our voices, the God Whom we beseech to accept us in communion, Whom we hope to have as our Companion, Who is our Comforter, Who is the Alpha and Omega of our Faith. To Him, with fear and love, we dedicate the day.

We hold torches as those brethren and martyrs of the early Christian centuries, a great many of whom became torches themselves rather than deny Christ. We hold candles, and our hearts burn as the hearts of those two blessed persons who walked with the risen Christ to Emmaus. Yes, it is the "Feast of Lights," the lights which illuminate our conscience and our Christian way of life.

It is rather the Feast of The Light. "I am the Light," Jesus said. He did not say: "I will show the light to you," but "I am the Light." It is not a new theory of life; it is mainly the knowledge of the true God which makes life as it is stated in the prayer of our Lord to His Heavenly Father, "And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." 21

NOTES

1. Luke 1,78b-79

2. a. The Baptist proclaims the Savior's arrival: Matt 3,11-12; Mark1,6b-8; Luke 3,15-18. b. The baptism of Christ: The Father's witness and the appearance of the Holy Spirit: Matt 3,13-17; Mark 1,8-11; Luke 3,21-22

3. John 1,29-34

4. Mark 1,7

5. Matt 3,11

6. Matt 3,17

7. Matt 3,16

8. Luke 3, 21b-22

9. Matt 3,11

10. Matt 3,14

11. Matt 3,15

12. John 1,34

13. John 1,34

14. Dismissal Hymn of Epiphany

15. 1 Cor. 10,4

16. Note: Clemon of Alexandria states that the Basilidians observed the feast of the Baptism on Jan 6, but his words seem distinctly to imply that the feast was not observed in Catholic circles yet. (Strom i,21)

17. 21,2 and about 400 A.D.

18. Graeca Patrologiae (G.P.) 65,25

19. G.P. 36,360

20. G.P. 49,365

21. John 17,3

Copyright: © 1990-1996 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America



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