Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Season of Revelation: The Feast of Theophany/Epiphany

Icon of Theophany
Yesterday, for those of the Byzantine tradition on the Gregorian calendar, was the second day of the octave of Theophany, the Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner. That feast is worthy of a post in its own right, the fourth major feast of St. John on the Calendar, making him a strong analogue to the Theotokos: both have a feast commemorating their conception (Sept. 23; Dec. 9), their birth (June 24; Sept. 8), and their death (Aug. 29; Aug. 15), and both have a synaxis the day after a major Christological feast commemorating their mediating role in salvation (Synaxis of the Theotokos on Dec. 26, and Synaxis of the Baptizer on Jan. 7). But more on that another time.

For those on the Julian calendar, however, yesterday was not January 7th, but Dec. 25th. Hence, for Eastern Christians in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Israel (where the Latin Catholics already celebrated on Dec. 25th and the Armenians will celebrate on January 18) Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Kazahkstan, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, as well as various diaspora communities worldwide, yesterday was Christmas. While this ambiguity may stand out, the question about the proper date of the feast of Christmas is an old question that long predates the 16th-century creation of the Gregorian calendar, albeit the reasons for the question were different.

The Armenian observance of Christmas on Jan. 6, (January 18 due to the Julian calendar discrepancy) highlights the original question of the early Church: when to observe the feast of Theopany, that is, the feast of God’s revelation, and what is commemorated by that feast? The Armenian calendar observes a Theophany fast from Dec. 30-January 4th (a strict fast where traditionally no food at all is consumed), and then celebrates the Feast of Theophany, a feast which includes three dates: Jan. 6 for the Nativity of Christ, January 13 for the naming of Jesus, and Feb. 14 for the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. This one feast of Theophany, therefore, extends to several distinct moments when God shines forth into our world: his birth, circumcision/naming, and meeting with Simeon. Each event is striking: angels singing to shepherds and the stars speaking to pagans, the revelation of the name of God that succeeds the revelation of the burning bush, and Simeon’s recognition of Jesus as the “light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of the God’s people, Israel.” The one feast is the feast of revelation, and the Armenians have come to observe the above three events as those which most exceptionally characterize revelation.

St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 190 A.D.) is the first to reference the observance of the feast in his Stromata:
And there are those, out of over-curiosity, who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon (20 May). And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar, the fifteenth day of the month Tubi (Jan. 6); and some that it was the eleventh of the same month (Jan. 10). And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi and others say that on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi the Saviour suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 19 or 20).
It is entirely possible that Basilidians’ observance of the Baptism was connected with their observance of Christ’s birth (which may or may not be deliberately implied here by Clement), although what led to this association is unknown. Some have speculated it had to do with Basilides’ theory that Christ received his Divinity at the Baptism, an idea that came to be linked to a variant reading of Luke 3:22. Whereas the best Greek manuscripts of the Gospel attribute the same message to God the Father as in Matthew and Mark: “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” the Codex Bessae (Manuscript D), the Old Latin, and several early fathers cite Luke 3:22 as “You are my beloved Son, today I have begotten you.” While this version certainly lent itself to Adoptionist heretics who held that Christ became the Son of God at that moment, there is a strong tradition of Orthodox interpretation of the verse, beginning with Justin Martyr and continuing through Clement of Alexandria, Origen (who in this case was orthodox), Methodius of Olympus, Ephraim the Syrian, and even upheld by St. Augustine in his Harmony of the Gospels. The Ethiopian Didascalia picks up the link between baptism and begetting, and prescribes that the bishop lay his hands on the newly baptized and declare, “You are my sons; today I have begotten you.”  This same language is adopted in the Apostolic Constitutions; baptism was connected with the day of one’s birth.  This link between the Baptism of Christ and His begetting may be central to the Basilidians’ identification of the two events, and it certainly underlies the subsequent develops in the orthodox east.

For all the orthodox interpreters of the variant in Luke 3:22, the message is the same: the begetting of Christ refers to his public manifestation as the Messiah. Beginning with Justin Martyr, to be known is to be born. Thus, Christ’s birth is fundamentally a reference to the revelation of Him. What makes the Nativity a great event is not so much the Incarnation (that Mystery takes place at the Annunciation), but the revelation of the Incarnation. Angels make known the event to the shepherds, the stars make known the King to the Magi. The Nativity is an event of revelation, and thus the more full revelation of Jesus’ ministry is the second birth of Christ.

The reason for the date of January 6th seems linked to the date of the original Easter. In the quote from Clement, we already see a desire to link the date of Christ’s passover with date of his birth; he notes that those who held Easter to be on April 20th also wanted to suggest that the Nativity was on the same date. From early on the popular Christian imagination desired an exact number for our Lord’s age, although the group mentioned by Clement was not as precise as others, who made their calculations correspond not to the birth but to the conception of Christ. Eventually, when Tertullian’s suggestion that our Lord died on March 25 (cf. Adv. Jud. 8) became normative, so did the belief that the conception took place on March 25. Another tradition, attributed by Sozomen to the Montanists, held that Easter took place on April 6th; hence too, the argument would run, His conception, and thus his birth would be on January 6th.

From early on in Church history, therefore, we can see three things: 1) a desire to correlate the date of Easter with the date of Christ’s conception; 2) a preference for liturgically commemorating the birth of Christ over his conception, because 3) the link of birth with revelation. The early Church, therefore, while calculating the date for the conception of Christ, wanted to liturgically observe the revelation of the Incarnation before they turned their attention to commemorating the event of the Incarnation proper.

St. Athanasius in his masterpiece, On the Incarnation, lays out a theology that captures the fundamental principles behind the Early Church's concern for commemorating revelation.  In the work, Athanasius lays out the two-fold dilemma that led to the Word’s Incarnation: 1) the dilemma of death and 2) the dilemma of ignorance. The dilemma of death, namely the scandal of God’s own image being condemned to perpetual corruption, was resolved, according to Athanasius, by the event of Easter. Hence, the feast of Easter was principally a feast commemorating God's destruction of death. But the dilemma of ignorance was another major problem: man had been created logical, that is, given a share in the Logos, the Word of God. But now he only knew earthly realities, not the Word. Thus, along with fixing the problem of death, the Word needed to fix the problem of mankind’s ignorance of God. When the early Church went to expand her observance of the liturgical calendar, therefore, it was only fitting that the next feast correspond to Christ’s victory over ignorance, just as Easter corresponded to his victory over death.

Subsequent to Clement’s note, the first reference to the formal observance of the feast of Epiphany is in 361, but while the East seemed confident in the good of observing a feast of revelation, the content of that feast was more ambiguous. St. Epiphanius claims that the feast of Epiphany is the feast of the shining forth of Christ’s birth, but places Christ’s baptism in November. At the same time, he argues that Epiphany also commemorates the miracle of the wedding of Cana, and Ambrose suggests that the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is captured by the Feast. But the focus on Baptism became dominant in Constantinople, Syria, and Alexandria. The ultimate Theophany was held to take place at the Baptism: both the public “birth” of Christ’s ministry, and the first public revelation of the Trinity. This is still the central theme of the Troparion for the feast:
When you were baptized in the Jordan, o Christ, worship of the Trinity was revealed. The voice of the Father bore witness to you, calling you His Beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the certainty of these words. Glory to you, o Christ, who enlightened and sanctified the world.
In Jerusalem, however, the birth of Christ took a central role in the Theophany feast, probably due to the proximity of Bethlehem. The Syrians kept the dual focus of the birth and the baptism, and eventually the Armenian focus on the 6th as the day of the Nativity would win out. It is debated when January 6th was adopted by the Romans, but the most likely hypothesis is that Rome became acquainted with the feast of Theophany in the East, but chose to observe the feast on December 25th for a variety of hypothesized reasons.

Following Rome’s adoption of December 25, a new tendency arises in the East, namely, to split the observances of Theophany over two days: December 25th to correspond to the Nativity after the pattern of Rome, and January 6th to emphasize the fulfillment of the revelation promised at Christmas. Jerusalem was slow to adopt the change since it observed the feasts of St. David the King and St. James, brother of our Lord and first bishop of Jerusalem on December 25. (The Byzantine calendar subsequently to the adoption of December 25 as Christmas, moved that feast to the Sunday after Christmas, and added St. Joseph to the commemoration.) St. John Chrysostom seems to have been hugely influential in getting Antioch to make this change, and St. Gregory the Theologian promoted it in Constantinople. In fact, Gregory’s festal homilies for Christmas and Theophany propose a theological vision for the three great feasts of the Church that correspond to the three births of Christ: His birth at Christmas, His birth at his Baptism, and His birth as first-born of the dead, at Easter.  In Gregory’s homily on Christmas, he also gives the Byzantine Church its liturgical language for the feast, focusing his reflections on Christmas as revelation. His description of the revelation to the Magi, in fact, becomes the language of the troparion for the feast:
Your Nativity, O Christ our God, shed upon the world the light of knowledge. For by it, those who worshiped a star, were taught by a star to worship you the Sun of Righteousness and to know You the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to you.
The liturgical observances for Christmas were patterned off of those for Theophany, which in turn were patterned off of those from Easter. Christmas and Theophany came to be seen as one pole that corresponded to the other pole of the liturgical year, Easter. In Rome, the feast of the Epiphany was eventually adopted on January 6th, but there was a decidedly focus on the Nativity in it. Hence, Christmas was focused on the revelation to the shepherds, Epiphany on the revelation to the Magi, and following that, a feast of the Baptism. The Milanese explicitly kept a focus on the three miracles of the day for January 6th: the manifestation to the Magi, the Baptism, and the Wedding at Cana (a focus for Epiphanius, and still observed two days after Epiphany on the Coptic Calendar but not the Byzantine), but Rome originally focused only on the Magi. Others suggest the possibility of including the Transfiguration on this day, a suggestion that doesn’t catch on in a meaningful way.

Subsequent to the establishment of the twin dates of Christmas and Epiphany, other great feasts began to be commemorated in the Byzantine tradition, but in many ways, all 12 of our great feasts can be seen as developments of either the triumph over ignorance or the triumph over death. Thus as a kind of unfolding of Easter we have Palm Sunday, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Dormition, and the Exaltation of the Cross. And from the revelation of Christ at Theophany we take first Christmas, then the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, the birth of Mary and her entrance to the temple, and Christ’s meeting of Simeon.

If we accept a view of the liturgical year that revolves around the twin axes of Revelation and Redemption, it certainly seems like the Armenians are onto something when they call this entire season the Feast of Theophany. And regardless of how the days are split up in East and West, regardless of the interesting transfer of the date of Epiphany for the West, and even regardless of the further ambiguity created by the Gregorian calendar, in this general season with a  variety of different ways of expressing those days, lets us all celebrate the splendor of God’s revelation in Christ.

Blessed Theophany!

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