Epiphany marks events in Jesus' life
Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate the Epi-phany today. The word "epiphany" is Greek and means "manifestation."
Although the Christian feast of Epiphany is celebrated in both Western and Eastern Christendom, the feast day marks two events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Eastern Christians call the feast of Epiphany "theophany" (Greek word meaning "manifestation of God") and refer specifically to the baptism of Jesus by John the Forerunner in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:11-17).
Eastern Christians always celebrate this event on the fixed date of Jan. 6.
Western Christians refer to the feast day of Epiphany as the visitation of the Magi to the infant Christ (Matthew 2:1-12) and view this event as Christ's presentation to the Gentiles. Western Christians also celebrate this event on the same fixed calendar date of Jan. 6. Western Christendom celebrates the baptism of Christ on the Sunday after Jan. 6, which then becomes a movable feast day. It is accurate to say, however, that before Christendom split into East and West in the 11th century and after, the baptism of Christ was celebrated uniformly on Jan. 6.
Theophany, in fact, is one of the greatest feast days of the ancient Christian Church and actually is the second-oldest feast day, Pascha (Easter) being the oldest and greatest.
Theophany, interestingly, was recognized by the heretical group, the Gnostics, as early as 140 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. This group celebrated the baptism of Christ and, at the same time, the birth of Christ, on Jan. 6 because they believed that at the baptism the "eternal" (eon) Christ was joined to the human person Jesus. This idea was adopted by another heretical group, called the Nestorians, and the idea itself was ultimately condemned at the first three Ecumenical Councils of early Christendom (325, 381, and 431 A.D.).
Nevertheless, ecclesiastical history shows how the early Christian church adopted certain customs and "christianized" them.
The celebration of Christmas immediately comes to mind. Originally, Dec. 25 was close to the time when pagan Romans celebrated the winter solstice, the time of year when the daylight hours begin to lengthen and the nighttime hours are shortened. Hence, what was celebrated was the victory of light over darkness.
So popular was Saturnalia, as it was called, that the Christian church believed that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was also the Sun of Righteousness, the source of, not only spiritual light, but also of physical light (see Christ's transfiguration on Mount Tabor in Matthew 17:1-9).
So, the ancient Christian church celebrated the Nativity of Christ on Dec. 25 and proclaimed in its anthem hymn: "Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has dawned upon the world the light of knowledge. For those who worshipped the stars, were, by a Star, led to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You the Dayspring from on High. O Lord, glory be to You." Orthodox Christians chant this hymn every Christmas. The Orthodox feast of the Nativity also incorporates the commemoration of the Magi's visit as well.
Historically, ancient Christian sources confirm that by the end of the second century, Christians celebrated both Christ's Nativity and baptism together Jan. 6. But by the end of the fourth century, the feast of the Nativity was transferred to Dec. 25 in the West. It also was transferred to the same date in the East by the beginning of the fifth century, according to St. John Chrysostom (407 A.D.). Interestingly enough, the pre-Chalcedonian churches (those that did not accept the decisions of the fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon, suburb of Constantinople, which are most notably the Coptic and Armenian churches) still maintain the more ancient tradition of celebrating Christ's Nativity and baptism together.
What does Christ's baptism signify? The event of Christ's baptism in the River Jordan was a cosmic one. For the first time in the sacred history of God's chosen people, God revealed himself as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
According to the Gospel accounts, the very real God-man, Jesus Christ, came to John the Forerunner and allowed himself to be baptized, even at the extreme hesitation of John.
One Orthodox church hymn, in the First of the Royal Hours, eloquently captures John's trepidation: "How shall the lamp illuminate the Light?"
After he came up from the water, the voice of the Father was heard and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alighted on Christ. The hymn chanted in the Orthodox church summarizes it well: "When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father called You His Beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of that word. O Christ our God, Who did appear and illumine the world, glory to You."
Jesus proclaimed unequivocally "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6)
Since Jesus is the way, this means he is our model in all things. We are to become acceptable to God through baptism in Christ initially. Baptism is the front door of God's House, so the church believes.
But why was Jesus baptized? This is a perennial but good question. As Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople (16th century A.D.) states: "Holy Baptism was imparted to us by our Lord Jesus Christ through word and deed. Through word by charging his own disciples to 'go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.'" (Matthew 28:18-20)
By his own baptism, he opened the door for our baptism and permanently established the sacrament.
The Rev. Steve Denas is pastor of Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Campbell.