The Triple Meaning of Epiphany

The Visit of the Magi

The Feast of Epiphany is preceded in importance by only three other feasts during the liturgical year. (As a good exercise, see if you can name the three feasts in order of their liturgical importance.) The connection between Epiphany and Christmas is not only in the fact that it is twelve days after the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, but also in its modern emphasis on the visitation of the Magi to the Christ Child. Historically, however, the connection is stronger still. Laurence Paul Hemming, when describing the history and theological significance of Epiphany in his book Worship as Revelation, reminds us that the feast of Christ’s birth was originally celebrated on January 6th rather than the current date of December 25th. “[F]ollowing the arguments of Sextus Julius Africanus … the actual birth of Christ was redated to December 25th …. So important was the date of the feast of the 6th January, however, that the established feast of that date remained, in both the East and the West.”


The Wedding at Cana

Once the feast was redated, what was the purpose of reserving January 6th as a day of particular reverence? It might seem at first that the date of January 6th was kept for purely historical or nostalgic reasons. On the contrary, Hemming indicates that the Feast of Epiphany originally had a triple significance: The Nativity (together with the visitation of the Magi), the Baptism of the Lord, and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Thus, even with the transference of the Nativity to December 25th, there were two remaining significations of the feast of Epiphany: the Baptism of Jesus and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Interestingly enough, “[t]he least of the significations of the feast (so much so, that it gets no mention in the liturgies of the East) is the appearance of the wise men of Magi from the East, the so-called ‘three kings.’”

The connection between these three significations is evident in many elements of the liturgy, but perhaps the antiphon for the Benedictus on Epiphany shows this most clearly: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.”
The Baptism of the Lord

The connection the Nativity shares with the Baptism of the Lord is more profound when we recall that the sacrament of Baptism is a celebration of heavenly birth. While Christmas Day is the celebration of the Incarnation, the earthly birth of Jesus, the Baptism of the Lord (as seen by Origin) is a celebration of the heavenly birth of the Savior, not in a temporal sense of course (because the Second Person of the Trinity is an eternal procession from the Father), but in an eschatological sense. There is, then, a connection between the Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the hypostatic union. The Christmas-Epiphany pair celebrates the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Liturgically, we hear this celebration of the hypostatic union and its importance in our own lives in the Opening Prayers from Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord.*

From Christmas – Mass of the Day: 

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

From Epiphany: 

 

O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
From the Baptism of the Lord:

 

Almighty ever-living God,
who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you.
The last example is reminiscent of the silent prayer the priest offers when pouring a drop of water into the chalice filled with wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” With the wine representative of divinity and the water representative of humanity, the connection between the wine and water of Cana and Christ’s hypostatic union is made explicit.  (For a more detailed explanation of the signs involved at the Wedding at Cana, see a this commentary on the thought of Fr. Robert Barron.)
It should now be clear that “[t]he central importance of the Feast of the Epiphany is that liturgically we are brought to see the connections between the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (Hemming). In a certain sense, this feast recalls for us the entire Paschal Mystery. It is for this reason that in Rome (and in many other church’s throughout the world) it is on this day, the Feast of Epiphany, that the Deacon, after chanting the Gospel solemnly proclaims in sacred chant the dates of the next Ash Wednesday, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and the following First Sunday of Advent.
The Feast of Epiphany, then, calls us to contemplate our own creation and its orientation to our new creation in Christ Jesus. While we may at first be drawn to thoughts of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the true gift of Epiphany is Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation. Therefore, the three gifts offered by the Magi should only be representations of our own gift of self to the Lord. As proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes (24), “[M]an, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
The universal call to holiness means that the mystery of Christ must become the center of our own existence. As with all things liturgical, the event of Epiphany effects what it signifies. While signifying our own divinization, the liturgy also brings about that divinization. Truly, through our Eucharistic participation in his incarnation-death-resurrection, we do “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” However, like all sacramental effects, we must dispose ourselves towards the reception of the grace offered. Our attitude towards our Creator must first and foremost be that of openness to the gift, an attitude that recognizes the transcendent reality beyond us, that sees with the eyes of faith that we are actors in the great drama being played out in the cosmos. Let us pray for this disposition so that Jesus Christ might become an Epiphany in our own lives.

5 Responses to The Triple Meaning of Epiphany

  • HermitTalker says:

    The Eastern Church, quite logically celebrated the Epiphany on 6 January, the western naturally joined the Jewish Temple Festival of Lights, Hannukah, to celebrate the Winter Solstice.- which for them was noted on 25th day of Chislev. The Fathers noted the connection between the tri-partite epiphanies, birth, baptism and Cana. Inextricabl tied as paschal mystery, the birth story, the Myrrh for burial as a gift from the Magi recall the Herod, Pharaoh, Egypt of His death as shown by John’s reference to hIs HOUR at Cana. The west has sentimentalised the Baby Jesus and missed the full sifnificancxew that this Child was recalled in light of His later death and rising as the Beloved Son who opened the Kingdom and Temple to those baptised in the Name of the revealed Tinity

  • John Nolan says:

    The triple meaning of the Epiphany is explicit in the Antiphon to the Magnificat at Second Vespers, which refers to three miracles: Tribus miraculis ornatum diem sanctum colimus; hodie stella Magos duxit ad praesepium; hodie vinum ex aqua factum est ad nuptias; hodie in Iordane a Ioanne Christus baptizari voluit, ut salvaret nos, alleluia.

    The Novus Ordo gave prominence to the Feast of Our Lord’s Baptism by celebrating it on the Sunday after Epiphany, which is another reason why the latter feast should not be transferred.

  • HermitTalker says:

    It is unfortunate that Christmas is always on Dec 25, and thus falls on a weekend some years which crowds out the feast of the Holy Family/Epiphany/Baptism. The good news is that more regular worshippers pray those mysteries that do fall on a Sunday, the less favourable is dropping either Epiphany or Baptism. We in Europe observe Epiphany on the sixth, and then we get mixed up when EWTN follows the US calendar after we have prayed with the Pope on EWTN for Epiphany on the sixth. Same for Easter, following the lunar calendar there is a huge swing in the dates, there should be a move to assist the merchants to fix a date fir Easter as has been suggested. Same for Christmas, note it on a mid-week day – give Wal Mart (and all the rest!) advance time to mark the actual day even if the secular culture starts Easter and Christmas way ahead and the actual day or next day are for sales and returns!

  • marcum says:

    The vatican celebrates/honors the Epiphany on the actual traditional calendar day Jan 6th. The American Catholic church chooses to move the date (too inconvenient) and in effect be in disharmony with Rome and the holy father.
    Ok, with that logic, shouldn’t the date of Christmas day be moved to the nearest Sunday so not to inconvenience people’s busy lives and commerse in a pluralist society of many religions?

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