Epiphany a gift that is wrapped in varying meanings

Posted On January 6, 2007

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While the Magi are central for Western churches, Jesus’ baptism is the focus among the Eastern Orthodox.

In the Western branch of Christianity generally, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the three wise men from the East, who, “following yonder star,” as a hymn says, traversed afar to see baby Jesus and to show their adoration with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In some Spanish-speaking countries, January 6 is known as El Dia de los Reyes, or the Day of the Kings.

But in the Eastern Church, composed of about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, Epiphany takes on a more complex theological meaning. The focal point is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the appearance of the Holy Spirit.

“Epiphany means the manifestation of the Trinity,” said the Very Rev. Father Michel Najim, dean of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Indeed, like many Orthodox, Najim prefers to refer to Epiphany, which means “revelation,” as Theophany, which translates as “manifestation of God.”

He emphasized that at Jesus’ baptism, the three persons in the Christian conception of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were revealed. The Bible says that when Jesus came up from the water after being baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and alighted on Jesus. When this happened, a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Another view of Epiphany is found among Armenian Orthodox Christians. January 6 is the occasion celebrating Jesus’ birth, his baptism and the adoration of the Christ child by the Magi. Thus, they alone continue an ancient tradition of marking all three events January 6, also known as the “Armenian Christmas.”

Today, in a display of ecumenism, a Roman Catholic priest will deliver a homily at the 11 a.m. service at the Armenian Church Western Diocese of North America in Burbank.

“It shows that ecumenical relations are alive and well in Los Angeles,” said the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, head of interreligious and ecumenical affairs for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I am sure Christ is pleased. He prayed at the Last Supper that all his followers might be one,” Smith said.

The celebration of the Armenian Christmas by the Julian calendar, as opposed to the standard Western, or Gregorian, calendar, represents more than 16 centuries of a difference between the Armenian Church and most other churches over when to observe the birth of Jesus. And for some Orthodox churches, including the Russian Orthodox, Christmas is celebrated January 7.

Father John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church in Los Angeles, says the difference in the dates is not an issue. “The most important thing is the reason for the day,” he said. “The reason is Christ in our midst, revelation of Jesus Christ as our Savior. That’s the key.”

One view of how January 6 came to be Epiphany comes from Father John Roll, priest in charge of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Long Beach. The celebration of Epiphany can be traced to Gnosticism, an ancient religious movement that stressed salvation by knowledge, he said in an e-mail response to a query.

“The 6th of January was designated as the feast day of Epiphany, because on that day was the birthday of Aeon, the patron god of Alexandria,” according to Roll. “The Gnostics had designated Christ as one of the Aeons in their elaborate religious system. In opposition to these heretics, it appears that the Orthodox Church acted to protect its followers from this falsification by defining the Theophany of the Holy Trinity, that is, the appearance of God during the baptism of Christ,” Roll said.

Appropriately for a day that centers on baptism, water plays a key role in some ceremonies observed by Orthodox churches. “Our tradition is that starting with Epiphany, the priests go to each parishioner’s house and bless their home with the sanctified water consecrated during Epiphany,” said Charles Ajalat, a member of St. Nicholas Cathedral. “We also bless many material things, such as a new car, with holy water, because Christ has redeemed the entire material world.” During their annual home visitation, a clergyman “reconsecrates” all the rooms in the house with an ornate gold-plated sprinkler.

“People enjoy it, because every year they have a chance to have their homes and themselves to be blessed,” said Najim, a Lebanese-born theologian who has served at St. Nicholas for two decades.

The blessing of homes begins this afternoon, but because his congregation is large, 1,500 families scattered across the region, the visitation process will continue throughout the year, he said. Parishioners who live too far away to make a priestly visit practical will take home a small bottle of holy water so they can sprinkle their homes themselves, he said.

Najim, an expert in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, said the blessing of the home is a practice Christ himself instituted when he visited the home of tax collector Zacchaeus, a short man who climbed up a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus when Christ was passing through Jericho.

Orthodox hymns of the feast include one that says, in part: “Lord, when you were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father gave witness to you, calling you beloved; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the certainty of his words. Glory to you, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world.”

Another tradition on Epiphany is tossing a cross into a body of water, river, lake or sea, and retrieving it. In Long Beach today, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church will continue the tradition.

Hundreds of parishioners will gather at Mother’s Beach, where Metropolitan Gerasimos, presiding hierarch of the Metropolis of San Francisco, will throw a cross into the sea. Teenage volunteers will dive to retrieve the cross and take it to Gerasimos, whose title is roughly equivalent to that of a bishop in the Western church.

“The divers are representatives of humanity and its struggle for salvation,” Roll said. “The act of retrieving the cross is illustration that salvation can be attained through the grace of God and man’s struggles and desires to be reunited with him. Attaining the cross and giving it back to the hierarch who threw it shows that everything comes from God and is returned to him.”

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