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The Epiphany: the original celebration of Christ’s coming into the world

By Philip Pfatteicher


Some would say the Church has lost the battle over Christmas. Continued insistence that we “put Christ back into Christmas” is futile, and instead of wasting time on that campaign it would be much more useful to emphasize the original celebration of Christ’s coming into the world: the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)

Baptism of Christ, 1497. Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God, Kyrillo-Byelozhersk. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The festival of Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church, where it retains its importance, and then spread to the West. In its origin, Epiphany was a celebration of beginnings: the baptism of Jesus, which was his authorization for his public ministry, and his first miracle at Cana in Galilee, when he “showed forth his glory,” as St. John says. As the festival developed, it became a celebration of these two events, together with the visit of the mysterious Magi. A wonderful antiphon weaves the three into one:

“Three mysteries mark this holy day. Today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ, today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast, today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.”

Another antiphon ties the three events together even more tightly, and with interpretation:

“Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed away her sins in the waters of the Jordan; the Magi hasten to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine.”

The feast proclaims the manifestation of Christ to the world: to its waters which he cleansed when he was baptized in the Jordan, to his people who are invited to the marriage of heaven and earth, and to the representatives of the nations in the form of the three kings who come to adore and pay homage to their sovereign.

There are abundant riches in this great feast to ponder and celebrate and enjoy.

Philip H. Pfatteicher is Professor of English and Religious Studies Emeritus, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and sometime Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music at Duquesne University. He is the author of Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year. Read his previous posts on the Holy Cross and on Advent.

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