Patristic Tradition

History of the Celebration of Epiphany ( 26.01.2009 )


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 feastday in Vienne of Gaul. The Orthodox Church gave to this Feast its correct significane 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 feastday because the Christians carried lighted candles. The same is mentioned by Saint 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). Saint 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."

Saints 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 Water's, 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 his 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.


17. 21,2 and about 400 A.D.
Graeca Patrologiae (G.P.) 65,25
19. G.P. 36,360
G.P. 49,365

Source: Goarch