What’s in Epiphany?

There is a strangeness to the power of a calendar. It has not the strength of a pagan deity. It does not circle the earth, give light or heat, nor energize the solar system. Yet it holds over the Western mind a need to observe, to chart, to catalogue. By it we can memorialize the past, anticipate the future, and understand our place in the present. It keeps our appointments, and it—we think—confirms our destiny.

St. Paul provides a new vision of time in Christ, a time that acknowledges days and seasons but is not bound by them (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10). He liberates us from the constraints of chronology and spatial distance, allowing us to move—like the Spirit—in and out of human history, as from the microscope to the airplane and back again. And though we have the freedom to inhabit a cyclical view of time in which all days are identical, we often choose to return to a linear view of time that checks off each day as progressively toward some unknown end, helps us grasp our temporal moorings and experience life in a measured, predictive way.

It is difficult to say with any precision how “most” Christians mark time, as they vary by individual, family, and culture. Some choose not to celebrate days and seasons at all, and do so unto the Lord, and they have my respect. I find myself among those who celebrate enthusiastically, aware of each commemoration day in the liturgical calendar throughout the year. Others take a mixed approach, observing the high feasts only—and that in a low fashion. Some of them, for instance, vehemently protest Halloween’s presumably pagan origins, but they accept Christmas with its commercial customs; both holidays share some pagan roots, though not nearly as much as Christians and pagans popularly believe. Yet for the many American Protestants who celebrate Christmas, some of them religiously and some more secularly than the most ardent Modernist, most are unfamiliar with the earliest Christian holidays, of which Epiphany (January 6) was one of the first.

We should note that all Christians, regardless of their position on holy days, nevertheless celebrate and commemorate—through the weekly observance of the Eucharist, if nothing else. Early Christian practice shifted worship from Sabbath to Sunday (Acts 20:7), and the sheer number of Gentile believers by the mid-second century over their Jewish counterparts made such a shift nearly a foregone conclusion. The process of universalizing a Jewish sect for all peoples meant that Hellenistic culture would have an outmoded influence over its Hebraic roots. Similarly, Easter (or “Pascha”), like the Jewish Passover, was calculated then, as now, using the “computus,” which counts down days from the vernal equinox (the first full moon after the beginning of spring) and corresponds to Mosaic instructions (Ex. 12:2-3). Second-century Christians celebrating the resurrection used a more roundabout, though similar computation to celebrate Christ’s birth as well. This approach created some conflict for Christians even into the seventh century (see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History), a reminder of how pervasive the calendar’s influence even then.

The Gnostics, some of whom did not believe in a physical birth, believed instead in Christ’s manifestation through the Spirit (or “epiphany”), which occurred at his baptism. Clement of Alexandria (160-220) tells us of an Egyptian sect of Gnostics (Basilideans) who celebrated Christ’s baptism as a festival on the 11th day of Tubi in the Egyptian calendar (which is January 6, modern day Epiphany). A pagan holiday already existed on January 6—a festival of the virgin goddess Kore and her daughter Aion. Egyptian Christians may have been eager to skip out on pagan festivities and celebrate Christ instead.

They found support for this practice in their beliefs about time. Joseph F. Kelly in The Origins of Christmas (2014) articulates the complete years theory, a Jewish tradition that claimed biblical peoples lived for whole years—meaning they died on the day of their birth. So when scripture says Moses died at 120 years old (Deut. 34:7), he was exactly 120 years old when he died. The ancient mind’s capacity for symmetry in symbolism matches the modern mind’s only in its need for symmetry in science. Thus, the Basilideans may have believed Jesus was baptized on the day of his birth. The Western church fathers found this subject of significant interest as well. The Julian calendar places the vernal equinox at March 25. Hippolytus (170-235) places March 25, therefore, as the anniversary of creation and of Christ’s crucifixion; Tertullian (155-220) concurs with this calculation, and the complete years theory would support this claim. Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240) also agreed, but argued that Jesus was incarnated not at his birth but at his conception. Nine months before March 25 is December 25. This day, as all know, will eventually become the day Christians will choose for Christmas; and the Feast of the Annunciation becomes March 25. Epiphany was still very popular in the East in association with the Nativity, so Western Christians also came to practice it, though associating it specifically with the appearance of the Magi. Which, of course, is from whom we have inherited our tradition of gift-giving.

Epiphany, then, is the final chapter of the Christmas story each year and the movement into Christ’s ministry. On the twelfth night of Christmastide, Christians conclude celebrating the birth of Christ, looking forward to other elements of the Gospel story: Candlemas, Lent, Easter. The liturgical calendar reminds us of each milestone of the birth, life, death, and resurrection.

For those who overlook this holiday, those who turn off the Christmas tunes and take down their trees and decorations on December 26, Epiphany seems one more named feast day, along with the Feast of St John, St. Steven the Martyr, and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. All must do what they have resolved to do in their hearts. It is surely true that the Gospel does not stand in need commemoration in days and seasons. Yet to stand against commemoration entirely as some vague spiritual principle runs against all human proclivities to the contrary. We eagerly mark days off of the calendar in anticipation of marriage, birth, and retirement. We eagerly celebrate our own birthdays, days of political independence, and federally approved vacations. Shall we not all the more so make our days of commemoration holy?

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