Known also under the following names: (1) ta epiphania, or he epiphanios, sc. hemera (rarely he epiphaneia: though, e.g. in Athanasius, he somatike epiphaneia occurs); theophaneia: dies epiphaniarum; festivitas declarationis, manifestationis; apparitio; acceptio. (2) hemera ton photon: dies luminum; dies lavacri. (3) phagiphania, Bethphania; etc. (4) Festum trium regum: whence the Dutch Drie-koningendag, Danish Hellig-tre-kongersdag, etc. (5) Twelfth Day, Swedish Trettondedag;, etc. The meaning of these names will be explained below. The feast was called among the Syrians denho (up-going), a name to be connected with the notion of rising light expressed in Luke 1:78. The name Epiphania survives in Befana, the great fair held at that season in Rome; it is difficult to say how closely the practice then observed of buying all sorts of earthenware images, combined with whistles, and representing some type of Roman life, is to be connected with the rather similar custom in vogue during the December feast of the Saturnalia.
As its name suggests, the Epiphany had its origin in the Eastern Church. There exists indeed a homily of Hippolytus to which (in one manuscript only) is affixed the lemma ieis ta hagia theophaneia; it is throughout addressed to one about to be baptized, and deals only with the Sacrament of Baptism. The first reference about which we can feel certain is in Clement, who writes:
“There are those, too, who over-curiously assign to the Birth of Our Saviour not only its year but its day, which they say to be on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. But the followers of Basilides celebrate the day of His Baptism too, spending the previous night in readings. And they say that it was the 15th of the month Tybi of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. And some say that it was observed the 11th of the same month.”
Now, 11 and 15 Tybi are 6 and 10 January, respectively. The question at once arises; did these Basilidians celebrate Christ’s Nativity and also His Baptism on 6 and 10 January, or did they merely keep His Baptism on these days, as well as His Nativity on another date? The evidence, if not Clement’s actual words, suggests the former. It is certain that the Epiphany festival in the East very early admitted a more or less marked commemoration of the Nativity, or at least of the Angeli ad Pastores, the most striking “manifestation” of Christ’s glory on that occasion. Moreover, the first actual reference to the ecclesiastical feast of the Epiphany, in 361, appears to be doubled in Zonaras by a reference to the same festival as that of Christ’s Nativity. Moreover, Epiphanius says that the sixth of January is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion, Christ’s Birthday, i.e. His Epiphany. Indeed, he assigns the Baptism to 12 Athyr, i.e. 6 November. Again in chapters 28 and 29 he asserts that Christ’s Birth, i.e. Theophany, occurred on 6 January, as did the miracle at Cana, in consequence of which water, in various places (Cibyra, for instance), was then yearly by a miracle turned into wine, of which he had himself drunk. It will be noticed, first, if Clement does not expressly deny that the Church celebrated the Epiphany in his time at Alexandria, he at least implies that she did not. Still less can we think that 6 January was then observed by the Church as holy. Moreover, Origen, in his list of festivals, makes no mention of it.
Owing no doubt to the vagueness of the name Epiphany, very different manifestations of Christ’s glory and Divinity were celebrated in this feast quite early in its history, especially the Baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Nativity, and the visit of the Magi. But we cannot for a moment suppose that in the first instance a festival of manifestations in general was established, into which popular local devotion read specified meaning as circumstances dictated. It seems fairly clear hat the Baptism was the event predominantly commemorated. The Apostolic Constitutions mention it. Kellner quotes the oldest Coptic Calendar for the name Dies baptismi sanctificati, and the later for that of Immersio Domini as applied to this feast. Gregory of Nazianzus identifies, indeed, ta theophania with he hagia tou Christou gennesis, but this sermon was probably preached 25 December 380; and after referring to Christ’s Birth, he assures his hearers that they shall shortly see Christ baptized. On 6 and 7 January he preached orations 39 and 40, and there declared that the Birth of Christ and the leading of the Magi by a star having been already celebrated, the commemoration of His Baptism would now take place. The first of these two sermons is headed eis ta hagia phota, referring to the lights carried on that day to symbolize the spiritual illumination of baptism, and the day must carefully be distinguished from the Feast of the Purification, also called Festum luminum for a wholly different reason. Chrysostom, however, in 386 preached “Hom. vi in B: Philogonium” where he calls the Nativity the parent of festivals, for, had not Christ been born, neither would He have been baptized, hoper esti ta theophania. This shows how loosely this title was used. Cassian says that even in his time (418-427) the Egyptian monasteries still celebrated the Nativity and Baptism on 6 January.
At Jerusalem the feast had a special reference to the Nativity owing to the neighbourhood of Bethlehem. The account left to us by Etheria (Silvia) is mutilated at the beginning. The title of the subsequent feast, Quadragesimae de Epiphania, leaves us, however, in no doubt as to what she is describing. On the vigil of the feast (5 Janusary) a procession left Jerusalem for Bethlehem and returned the following morning. At the second hour the services were held in the splendidly decorated Golgotha church, after which that of the Anastasis was visited. On the second and third days this ceremony was repeated; on the fourth the service was offered on Mount Olivet; on the fifth at the grave of Lazarus at Bethany; on the sixth on Sion; on the seventh in the church of the Anastasia, on the eighth in that of the Holy Cross. The procession to Bethlehem was nightly repeated. It will be seen, accordingly, that this Epiphany octave had throughout so strong a Nativity colouring as to lead to the exclusion of the commemoration of the Baptism in the year 385 at any rate. It is, however, by way of actual baptism on this day that the West seems to enter into connection with the East. Saint Chrysostom tells us how the Antiochians used to take home baptismal water consecrated on the night of the festival, and that it remained for a year without corruption. To this day, the blessing of the waters by the dipping into river, sea, or lake of a crucifix, and by other complicated ritual, is a most popular ceremony. A vivid account is quoted by Neale. The people consider that all ailments, spiritual and physical, can be cured by the application of the blessed water. The custom would seem, however, to be originally connected rather with the miracle of Cana than with the Baptism. That baptism on this day was quite usual in the West is proved, however, by the complaint of Bishop Himerius of Tarragona to Pope Damasus (died 384), that baptisms were being celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany. Pope Siricius, who answered him identifies the feasts of Natalitia Christi and of his Apparitio, and is very indignant at the extension of the period for baptisms beyond that of Easter and that of Pentecost. Pope Leo I denounces the practice as an irrationabilis novitas; yet the Council of Gerona condemned it in 517, and Victor Vitensis alludes to it as the regular practice of the (Roman-) African Church. Saint Gregory of Tours, moreover, relates that those who lived near the Jordan bathed in it that day, and that miracles were then wont to take place. Saint Jerome definitely asserts that it is for the baptism and opening of the heavens that the dies Epiphaniorum is still venerable and not for the Nativity of Christ in the flesh, for then absconditus est, et non apparuit – “He was hidden, and did not appear.”
Epiphany was of later introduction in the West than the Christmas festival of 25 December. It is not contained in the Philocalian Calendar, while it seems most likely that 25 December was celebrated at Rome before the sermon of Pope Liberius which many assign to 25 December 354. Saint Augustine clearly observes Oriental associations in the Epiphany feasts: “Rightly”, says he, “have refused to celebrate this day with us; for neither do they love unity, nor are they in communion with the Eastern Church, where at last the star appeared.” Saint Philastrius adds that certain heretics refuse to celebrate the Epiphany, regarding it, apparently, as a needless duplication of the Nativity feast, though, adds the saint, it was only after twelve days that Christ “appeared to the Magi in the Temple”. The dies epiphaniorum, he says, is by some thought to be “the day of the Baptism, or of the Transformation which occurred on the mountain”. Finally, an unknown Syrian annotator of Barsalibi boldly writes: “The Lord was born in the month of January on the same day on which we celebrate the Epiphany; for of old the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany were kept on one and the same day, because on the same day He was born and baptized. The reason why our fathers changed the solemnity celebrated on 6 January, and transferred it to 25 December follows: it was the custom of the heathens to celebrate the birthday of the sun on this very day, 25 December, and on it they lit lights on account of the feast. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians too participated. When, therefore, the teachers observed that the Christians were inclined to this festival, they took counsel and decided that the true birth-feast be kept on this day, and on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphanies. Simultaneously, therefore, with this appointment the custom prevailed of burning lights until the sixth day.”
It is simpler to say that, about the time of the diffusion of the December celebration in the East, the West took up the Oriental January feast, retaining all its chief characteristics, though attaching overwhelming importance, as time went on, to the apparition of the Magi. Epiphanius indeed had said that not only did water in many places turn into wine on 6 Jan., but that whole rivers, and probably the Nile, experienced a similar miracle; nothing of this sort is noted in the West. The Leonine Sacramentary is defective here; but Leo’s eight homilies on the Theophania bear almost wholly on the Magi, while in Serm. xxxv, col. 249, he definitely asserts their visit to be the commemoration for which the feast was instituted. Fulgentius speaks only of the Magi and the Innocents. Augustine’s sermons deal almost exclusively with this manifestation; and the Gelasian Sacramentary exclusively, both on the vigil and the feast. The Gregorian Sacramentary makes great use of Psalm 72:10 and mentions the three great apparitions in the Canon only. The Ambrosian, however, refers to all three manifestations in the vigil-preface, and in the feast-preface to baptism alone. The “Missale Vesontiense” speaks, in the prayer, of Illuminatio, Manifestatio, Declaratio, and compares its Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:22; and John 2:1-11, where the Baptism and Cana are dwelt upon. The Magi are referred to on the Circumcision. The Gothic Missal mentions the Magi on the vigil, saying that the Nativity, Baptism, and Cana make Christ’s Illustratio. All the manifestations are, however, referred to, including (casually) the feeding of the 5000, a popular allusion in the East, whence the name phagiphania. Augustine speaks of the raising of Lazarus (cf. day 5 of the Jerusalem ritual) as on an equality with the other manifestations, whence in the East the name Bethphania occurs. Maximus of Turin admits the day to be of three miracles, and speculates on the historical connection of date and events. Polemius Silvanus, Paulinus of Nola and Sedulius all insist on the three manifestations. The Mozarabic Missal refers mainly to the Magi, using of their welcome by Christ the word Acceptio, a term of “initiation” common to Mithraists and Christians. In 381, the Council of Sargossa, read together with the Mozarabic Missal’s Mass in jejunio epiphaniae, makes it clear that a fast at this season was not uncommon even among the orthodox. “Cod. Theod.” forbids the circus on this day in the year 400; “Cod. Justi.” makes it a day of obligation. In 380 it is already marked by cessation of legal business in Spain; in Thrace it was kept as early as 304. Kellner quotes the “Testamentum Jesu Christi” as citing it twice as a high festival together with Easter and Pentecost.
In the present Office, Crudelis Herodes alludes to the three manifestations; in Nocturn i, the first response for the day, the octave, and the Sunday within the octave, deals with the Baptism, as does the second response; the third response, as all those of Nocturns i and iii, is on the Magi. The antiphon to the Benedictus runs:
“Today the Church is joined to her celestial spouse, because in Jordan Christ doth wash her sins; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal marriage-feast, and the guests exult in the water turned to wine.”
O Sola refers to the Magi only. The Magnificat antiphon of Second Vespers reads:
“We keep our Holy Day adored with three miracles: today a star led the Magi to the crib, today wine was made from water at the marriage, today in Jordan Christ willed to be baptized by John to save us.”
On the Epiphany it was a very general custom to announce the date of Easter, and even of other festivals, a practice ordered by many councils, e.g. that of Orléans in 541; Auxerre in 578 and 585, and still observed at Turin, etc. Gelasius finally tells us that the dedication of virgins occurred especially on that day.
The reason for the fixing of this date it is impossible to discover. The only tolerable solution is that of Monsignor Duchesne, who explains simultaneously the celebration of 6 January and of 25 December by a backward reckoning from 6 April and 25 March respectively. The Pepyzitae, or Phrygian Montanists, says Sozomen, kept Easter on 6 April; hence (reckoning an exact number of years to the Divine life) Christ’s birthday would have fallen on 6 January. But, it may be urged, the first notice we have of the observance of this date, refers to Christ’s Baptism. But this (if we may assume the Basilidians, too, to have argued from 6 April) will have fallen on the exact anniversary of the Birth. But why preeminently celebrate the Baptism? Can it be that the celebration started with those, of whatever sect, who held that at the Baptism the Godhead descended upon Christ? On this uncertain territory we had better risk no footstep till fresh evidence, if such there be, be furnished us.