Illuminating the ancient feast of Epiphany

Christian traditions mark Magi’s visit, burning of greens, baptism of Jesus.

According to the traditional Christian calendar, today marks “Twelfth Night,” the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. Not many people still celebrate with 12 days of gift-giving from December 25 to January 5, as in the famous Christmas carol. But many churches do observe the ancient feast of Epiphany on January 6, a holiday associated in Western churches with the coming of the Magi to honor the infant Jesus.

“The story of the wise men will be done this Sunday in Sunday school,” said the Rev. Bill King, deputy to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. “Many churches are leaving the creche up through this Sunday.” Tonight’s the church-sanctioned time to take down Christmas decorations, King said.

“Twelfth Night was the burning of the greens; you took the Christmas wreaths down and burned them,” he said. “In the old English tradition you’d have a bonfire on Twelfth Night.”

While Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and other Western churches celebrate the coming of the Magi to adore Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany. Icons representing the baptism of Jesus are on display, while the feast is called Theophania [in Greek].

Tonight is the Eve of Epiphany. “That’s the completion of the 12 days of Christmas,” said the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, pastor of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. “Traditionally, the 12 days of Christmas is not the 12 days before Christmas, it’s the 12 days following. We’re still singing carols.” Western churches also remember the baptism of Jesus during Epiphany and have more baptisms at that time. This Sunday will be popular for baptisms, King said.

On Saturday, Orthodox churches will have blessing-of-the-water services to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

“Waters are blessed and people drink of the water,” said the Rev. Paul Costopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross, which will bless waters during its 8:30 a.m. service Saturday. “During the Epiphany season, throughout January, the priest visits the homes of parishioners and blesses homes with the holy water.”

In some Episcopal churches, youth dress up for Epiphany as kings and symbolically bring forth the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh. “In our home, the creche stays up until 12th night,” King said.

On Sunday, Orthodox will also celebrate the annual feast day of John the Baptist. “John the Baptist was a major player in Epiphany,” Costopoulos said. “He was the forerunner chosen by God to baptize Jesus.”

At St. Symeon Orthodox church, the 6:30 p.m. service tonight and the Saturday 10 a.m. service will include the blessing of water. “We bless the water by placing the cross in the water,” Fecanin said. “It’s the image of Christ entering the water.”

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas celebrations in America took place sporadically between December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, and January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. The earlier onset of U.S. Christmas celebrations and decorations in the modern commercial era may create a sense of anxiety for the holiday to be over. After a Christmas shopping season that for many Americans begins right after Thanksgiving, people tire of the holiday season and are ready to move on.

“Epiphany is a major feast day according to the teachings of the church,” Costopoulos said. “It’s gotten out of kilter because of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. It’s become so overwhelming, the focus is on that.”

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Brookside observes January 7 as Christmas, following the Russian tradition. In Bethlehem, celebrations of the birth of Jesus extend to the end of January. Around the world, Christmas is celebrated as late as January 27 in the Coptic Church of Egypt. “There are different traditions, and Bethlehem picks up on each one of them,” King said.

“Epiphany was one of the earliest Christian feast days,” King said. “It celebrated the manifestation of the Christ, in Jesus, the divinity of Christ. God entering into humanity. It was god in our midst, god revealed through Jesus. That’s Epiphany, an awakening, an understanding of something different. It was only later that Christmas was chosen as December 25.”

In early church tradition, Epiphany celebrated the Nativity and the appearance of Christ at the River Jordan for baptism. Churches usually celebrate Epiphany on January 6 or the Sunday between January 2-8. The Feast of Epiphany begins a season that continues until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter.

The visit of the Magi is connected to Christmas, although if the visit is historical, the Magi would likely have arrived long after the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew says that when the Magi visited Herod and told him of the birth of a new King, Herod responded by ordering the slaughter of male children under 2 years old, which would suggest a long lapse of time between the appearance of the star and the arrival of the Magi.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “The job of the church is to teach the sacred truths behind the story,” King said. “That’s our job.”