The Celebration of Epiphany

Today across the world many are celebrating Epiphany. Since antiquity the celebration of Epiphany has been on January 6th. Due to changes in the calendar, today Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th by those who follow the Gregorian calendar and on January 19th by those who follow the older Julian calendar.

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Fundamentally, Epiphany is a celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ, but there are differences in the West and East in regards to what events are in fact commemorated. In the West, Epiphany is a celebration of the Adoration of the Magi (Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles), the Baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana. In the East, Epiphany is only a celebration of the Baptism of Jesus.

Epiphany has historically been one of the most important Solemnities of the Liturgical Year. However, Epiphany has had a complex history in the West. This history has become even more complicated due to revisions to the General Roman Calendar before and after Vatican II that made Epiphany part of Christmas Time, created the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and allowed for the transfer of Epiphany to a Sunday.

Personally I wish Epiphany was a Holy Day of Obligation and was celebrated on its proper day in the United States, but that is the liturgical historian in me talking.

The Western history of Epiphany is complex, but despite its ever-changing celebration Epiphany remains a commemoration of the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana.

Pope Francis’ homily today on the Solemnity of Epiphany brought the Adoration of the Magi to the forefront and called Christians to enter into the Paschal Mystery. In his homily, Pope Francis called all Christians to be mindful of their suffering brothers and sisters:

And so we can ask ourselves: what is the mystery in which God is hidden?  Where can I find him? All around us we see wars, the exploitation of children, torture, trafficking in arms, trafficking in persons… In all these realities, in these, the least of our brothers and sisters who are enduring these difficult situations, there is Jesus (cf. Mt 25:40,45). The crib points us to a different path from the one cherished by the thinking of this world: it is the path of God’s self-abasement, his glory concealed in the manger of Bethlehem, on the cross upon Calvary, in each of our suffering brothers and sisters.

On a different note, our Orthodox brothers and sisters plunged into icy waters today across Europe in an old ritual in which they retrieve crucifixes thrown into the water. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew even tossed a crucifix in the river to be retrieved by the faithful. The Wall Street Journal provides some interesting pictures of this ritual and others celebrated on Epiphany.

It is my hope that today on the Solemnity of Epiphany you may enter into the mystery of the Incarnation and like the Magi give adoration to the Christ child.

 

 

 

 

17 comments

  1. I too wish Epiphany in the U.S. would NOT be transferred to the closest Sunday, but celebrated on January 6th, whatever day of the week that might be. And it is not only for historical reasons that I wish this, but also for contemporary ecclesial reasons: most Roman Catholics around the world do celebrate Epiphany on Jan 6th (this includes Pope Francis), and for many, the day is connected to popular religious practices anchored in that particular date. They don’t quite feel right (I speak from experience) when the date simply gets moved around…

  2. Missing the liturgy of the Second Sunday after Christmas is a loss, but the Church Musician in me is somewhat glad that it’s been transferred here. Three weeks in row with Holy Days of Obligation? Yikes!

  3. I would prefer January 6 to January 1 as the holy day of obligation. By January 1, many families are in event-fatigue. I think Epiphany has a more religious connection than the frequently-changed titles of January 1. Plus, it would help mark the end of the Christmas season in a different timing than the secular calendar does.

  4. Welcome back, Nathan. I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to all the backtalk you’re going to get as moderator—such as . . .
    1. The (amateur) liturgical historian in me often talks too, but I think he needs to keep quiet over the restoration of a fixed date for Epiphany in North America. When the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 laid down for the USA the six holydays we older folks remember, January 6 was omitted—presumably because coming to Mass on a weekday at that time of year, in addition to Christmas and New Year’s Day (which, unlike January 6, are public holidays), was such a burden for so many, especially in the North. I believe you yourself write from Stearns County, Minnesota. Circumspice!
    Epiphany is indeed (or was when last I looked) a solemnity equal in rank to Christmas, Ascension, and Pentecost. Putting it back on a weekday would greatly reduce the number of people observing it. We need to remind our inner liturgical historians that the undesirability of that result trumps any of their interests. I’d say a similar trumping applies to the international ecclesial solidarity that Teresa Berger would like to see.
    2. The history of Epiphany may be complex, but I’d say that since Vatican II the celebration of the feast itself in the Latin Rite has become simpler in many ways that I appreciate. There’s no vigil and no official octave. The Baptism of the Lord was in the calendar before. Christmas and Epiphany form one season rather than two. People are no longer bewildered to hear that Epiphany outranks Christmas (because it doesn’t anymore). There are no “Sundays after Epiphany” that vary in number with the date of Easter. And references to the threefold epiphany, including the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at Cana, are in the Office but not in the Mass (unless a congregation sings the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”). We are left free to concentrate on the mystery of the day, which for me keeps unfolding new surprises.

    1. Oh yes, the backtalk is the cross I bear for the fun I have writing posts 🙂
      No, but really it is not bad.

      As to #1 – I understand your point, but I think the historical connection to the date is so important that the restoration of Epiphany to Jan 6th even on weekdays should be a priority. As to the lack of people who would observe it, this is a larger problem that touches directly on the formation and religiosity of the modern Catholic.

      As to #2 – I do not think simplicity is always something that we should hold as an ideal. The lack of an octave is truly regrettable for such a historically important feast. And while connected, Christmas and Epiphany are distinct (historically and theologically). The existence of an octave for Epiphany before 1955 and its distinction from Christmastide is proof of that. Because of the history I find the virtual separation of the Baptism of Our Lord from Epiphany in the Western tradition truly regrettable. All three mysteries were present historically in Epiphany in the West because of their connection to one another. To loose the Baptism of Our Lord means the loss of one of the original meanings of Epiphany.

      That is my two cents late at night here in Belgium.

      1. @Nathan Chase – comment #11:
        Forgive me for forgetting you were in Leuven. I bet there’s a lot less snow there than in Collegeville. But Stella Artois may be a better beer than Cold Spring.
        1. I’m not sold on the idea of returning Epiphany to January 6 and then working on the larger ecclesial difficulty of getting the general Catholic population to take part in it (“If you build it, they will come”?). My parish schedules six Masses for Sundays and two Masses for days of obligation other than Christmas that fall on a weekday—including the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, which is on a public holiday. The same would surely happen with a restored January 6 Epiphany.
        Why do so many stay away from Mass on these holydays? Many of them would plead hardship, and for many of those, the excuse is valid (though maybe not on January 1). Criticisms that our leaders are making things too easy for their flocks by moving solemnities to Sunday strike me as insensitive to people’s real difficulties. I believe I once heard that the first principle of missiology is to meet people where they are. A historically purer Epiphany, with the attendance problem left to be solved later, sounds disturbingly like “a smaller, purer Church” to my ears.
        2. I agree that not all simplifications are good, but I still think Epiphany has come out all right in that regard. In effect it does have an octave, with weekday Gospel readings detailing the lesser epiphanies that occurred in Jesus’ public life. But I think the historic threefold epiphany is too much for an ordinary congregation to handle on the solemnity itself. Our parochial vicar preached about the threefold epiphany last Sunday, so you see the idea is not dead by any means. But I’d have been much happier if he had focused on the visit of the Magi.

      2. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #14:
        No worries, Paul. We do not have any snow this year and it does not look like we will get any…now watch it snow tomorrow!

        I understand both sides of the argument on the transfer of Epiphany. I do agree with you that at times “criticisms that our leaders are making things too easy for their flocks by moving solemnities to Sunday strike me as insensitive to people’s real difficulties.” At the same time how do we preserve the celebrations of liturgies that fall on dates and times which are not always convenient for the faithful? It is a difficult balance that the Church must maintain.

        I just wish there was more conversation around issues such as this. By no means do I want “a smaller, purer Church,” but I do want to maintain the integrity of the liturgical calendar. Some of my fondest memories growing up were attending liturgies that broke with my family’s normal schedule, like Ash Wednesday and other liturgies that were an inconvenience to us. There is something exciting and mysterious even for me now when I attend midnight Mass on Christmas or other liturgies which happen at less than convenient times.

        Just my thoughts. Again, I just think that discussions such as this should be raised.

  5. I do think the weekday holy days of obligation (except for Christmas) should be eliminated, and the celebrations transferred to the nearby Sundays. The existing law is not succeeding in its spiritual aims and it is placing burdens of sin and guilt on the faithful. It’s a bad situation.

  6. When the U.S. bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 legislated the number of holydays of obligation to be observed in this country, Epiphany was not included on the list of six (nor were St. Joseph, the Anunciation, and Corpus Christi). So Catholics in this country did not have a widespread practice of observing the Epiphany liturgically on January 6.

    These days Sunday Mass observers in the U.S. DO observe the Epiphany liturgically. Surely people are not suggesting that we move the observance in this country back to January 6 and have less than half the number of persons observe the solemnity than what we have presently with a Sunday observance, are they?

  7. I, too, regret the loss of the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, but only because here was an opportunity to hear the magnificent Prologue to John’s Gospel which, if you went to Midnight Mass only, you would have missed on Christmas morning.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #8:
      This is a very unfortunate lost opportunity. I haven’t attended a late-morning Mass on Christmas for a long time, but I’m afraid I might hear Luke 2:1-14 even then. Having John 1:1-18 as the Gospel on the morning of New Year’s Eve is small consolation.
      One possible answer is to read the prologue to John at the end of Mass. Or has that been tried?

  8. The birth of Jesus is in Luke 2;
    The adoration of the Magi in Matthew 2;
    The baptism of Jesus is in Mark 1;
    The wedding in Cana in John 2.

    Christmas with Epiphany is the beginning of the gospels, and the beginning of the Gospel. It is the perfect time to begin reading each of these gospels in a way that will last through the whole year.

  9. I agree Epiphany should be celebrated Jan 6 and a Holy Day of Obligation instead of Jan 1. I don’t agree with getting rid of Holy Days of Obligation. We should live in such a way that our lives revolve around our faith, instead of looking to the easy way out of moving things to the nearest Sunday.

    For the first time I experienced the Date of Easter and the Moveable Feasts announced after the Gospel and the priest let us at the announcements he was available to bless chalk after Mass. Apparently, there is a tradition where you write 2+0+C+M+B+1+5 on your door to invoke Christ’s blessing upon your home for the New Year as well as calling to mind the names traditionally associated with the three magi. I was previously unaware of this venerable tradition as I have never encountered it previously, but next Epiphany, I will be bringing chalk to be blessed!

  10. I still do not understand why, when Epiphany is on January 7 or 8, the Feast of the Baptism is automatically celebrated the following day, and that beautiful week of readings and the chance to sing carols for another week are eliminated. When Epiphany falls on Jan 2 or 3, we get so little time after the Octave of Christmas to continue savoring the Christmas feast. I realize the pastoral situations, but do not think restoring Epiphany to Jan 6 in non-holyday of obligation countries like the U.S. is a good idea, either. What to do, what to do?

    Nathan, I still think of the Feast of the Baptism as an “extension” of the Epiphany, and I really enjoy Cycle C, when the wedding at Cana becomes a Gospel reading on the following Sunday! I love the antiphon for the Magnificat in EP II of Epiphany, when all three mysteries are acknowledged as components of Epiphany.

    1. @Lee Bacchi – comment #12:
      That calendrical squeeze on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord appears to be dictated by the fact that the feast is celebrated in most of the Catholic world when countries like the US are celebrating the transferred observance of Epiphany – to prevent a week-long discrepancy in the worldwide Church’s prayer cycle.

      And, in the US, the most dynamic element of American Catholicism is a culture that emphatically celebrates January 6th, and I wonder if that at some point will rudder a reconsideration of the longstanding practice of transferring the observance. I could even see January 1 being ditched as a day of precept in favor of January 6. January 1 stopped being much of a real public holiday when stores in all jurisdictions opened and when the major feasting moved from the Day to the Eve (I can still remember when the Day was more important than the Eve in that regard – it was also the major day of the year when people paid calls or received callers).

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #13:
        Thanks, Karl, I understand now, that does explain it — but why not add a week (and for some a few days more) between Epiphany and the Baptism for the universal church? If the Christmas Festival is second only to the Paschal Cycle of Lent-Easter, another week of Christmas and one less week of Ordinal Time seems more fitting. Composing some liturgical texts would not be difficult — our Roman Missal has some formularies simply for weekday Masses during the Christmas season.

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