Christmas and Epiphany, Western and Oriental Traditions

The Adoration of the Magi, by Jacopo Bassano, 1542

by Edoardo Arborio Mella | 2. Januar 2012

The liturgical cycle of Christmas and Epiphany comes essentially from two traditions: the Western one which gave rise to the festivity of Christmas, and the Oriental one which developed on the feast-day of the Epiphany. The information we have in this regard is obviously fragmentary, often conjectural, based on references in the writings of ancient authors and rarely in liturgical rubrics which are not always easy to interpret, but from this it is possible to reconstruct a history with many “maybes”.

In the first place it has to be remembered that the period of great development of the Christian liturgy started in the 4th century, following the so-called peace of Constantine. It was essentially in that century, marked by a liturgical creativity that has been defined as “frenzied”, that the cycle of Christmas and the Epiphany was formed: until then, all worship had been concentrated on the mystery of Easter.

In the West, the first mention of the presence of a feast-day of the Nativity of the Lord celebrated on 25th December dates back to the first half of the 4th century. The feast-day was celebrated in Rome and immediately spread to the rest of Italy, perhaps Spain and the province of Africa (which did not include Egypt), where, on the same day, the adoration of the Magi with the massacre of the innocents was also remembered. Perhaps a church that had just emerged from a period of persecution felt the need to remember the birth of Jesus for the world and its immediate refusal. The date of 25th December probably comes from the pagan festival of the winter solstice, which started in the night between 24th and 25th December. For about a century, the latter had taken on importance in Rome, due to the spread, at times officialised, of the Persian cult of Mithra, identified with the sun and the nascent cult of the person of the emperor : it was the feast-day of undefeated Christmas, of the sun being born, beginning to grow again after the short days of winter. Christ was therefore announced as the real sun of justice that came into the world in a symbolism that was easily comprehensible to those who were shaped by that culture.

We also have another date: the Christian theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria reports a tradition present in Palestine and Egypt during his lifetime, in the early 3rd century, about one century earlier than the first attestations of 25th December in the West. It gave the date of Jesus’ birth as 20th May; other information from the Palestinian or Egyptian area situate the memory of the flight to Egypt and the massacre of the innocents around this date. A biographical memory? However it may be, two centuries after the attestation of Clement of Alexandria, every trace of the memory of 20th May seems to have vanished, although at times there still remain in that period the related memories mentioned above. The birth of Jesus had now become 6th January, the Feast of the Epiphany, in the whole of the Orient.

Here we are at the second key date of this liturgical time, 6th January. The origin of the date is uncertain. As for the name “epiphany”, it has an oriental origin: it is a Greek term that means “appearance”. The appearance of what? The feast-day had already been known in the Syriac area from the second half of the 3rd century, then towards the end of the 4th century in Palestine and in Egypt as the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus in the flesh, i.e. of his birth and the adoration of the Magi. In Egypt and perhaps in Syria, the baptism of Jesus and at times the miracle of Cana, were also remembered, perhaps due to the transposition of a previous pagan rite on the waters.

In Syria and in the area of Constantinople, the Western Christmas of 25th December was then introduced towards the end of the 4th century. This led to a change in the meaning of the feast-day of 6th January, which became the commemoration of the baptism only. The term thus came to mean the manifestation to the crowd on the Jordan of the celestial voice of the divine filiation of Christ. The same thing happened in Egypt in the first half of 5th century, and at the same period in Palestine, except that here the Western festivity only lasted for a short time (which will have a consequence as will be described below) and returned later, perhaps as the consequence of an imperial decree of the second half of the 6th century. At this point, everywhere in the Orient, 6th January had become the feast-day of the baptism of Jesus and to date this is the only meaning of this day in the Orthodox world.

Curiously enough, it would appear that 6th January as the memory of the Nativity was also present as early as the second half of the 4th century in Gaul (present-day France), the only Western region. But even before the mid 5th century, the birth was celebrated on an earlier date (perhaps 25th December as in the rest of the West),which also changed here the character of 6th January: but not, as in the Orient, giving it the character of commemoration of the baptism, but remembering the visit of the Magi, the baptism and the miracle of Cana: the «three signs» which are still sung today in the antiphony of the Benedictus and of the Magnificat during the celebration of the Epiphany in the West.

Just as Christmas on 25th December entered the Orient, the Epiphany of 6th January entered the West. With this particularity: that the central event celebrated with it in the West did not become the baptism, but the visit of the Magi, at times with a mention of the other two events mentioned. In Italy in the mid 5th century, the three events were known; in Spain at the end of the 4th century the magi and the massacre of the innocents were remembered; in Rome and in Africa in the 5th century only the Magi, but later the other two events as well.

We do not have enough information to say anything precise about the passages and changes that occurred. Perhaps when the West which already had 25th December, began to adopt the other festivity, it isolated that part, or those parts, present in the primitive Oriental Epiphanies for its own Epiphany. Or, on the contrary, a Western Church that celebrated the Nativity on 6th January (as we saw in Gaul) may have adopted the Roman use of 25th December and left the part relative to the Magi to the ancient feast-day; the use may then have been extended to the rest of the Western world.

Visitors to the Holy Land can easily realize the importance that these dates have for the local Churches. The Catholic liturgies will have no surprises for Catholics. Particularly well known is the nocturnal Eucharist of the Latin Patriarch at the church of the Franciscans in Bethlehem, which has an official character. As for the events of the Oriental churches, to understand them, two facts must be remembered. The first is that, after those Churches failed to reform the Julian calendar, their liturgical calendar is thirteen days behind ours. Thus, their 25th December corresponds to our 7th January. Therefore, only for calendar-related motives, they celebrate their Christmas almost on the same date as our Epiphany. On 6th January (for them 24th December) in Bethlehem there is the important popular celebration of the entry of the heads of the Oriental Churches into the ancient basilica of the Nativity. The maximum solemnity is reserved to the entry for the Patriarch and the Orthodox bishops, which takes place in the late morning, joyfully accompanied by drums and bagpipes. This is followed, at night, by the liturgies, celebrated by each church at its own altar. The following day (our 7th January) there is the return to Jerusalem. Then, on 6th January of the Julian calendar, corresponding to the 18th of ours, there is the celebration of the Epiphany, i.e. the baptism of Jesus: on the day before or on the same day, each Church goes to the River Jordan, each to their own place, passing through the mined fields with the authorization and under the surveillance and protection of the military. Several dozen buses from all over Israel and the West Bank converge there, in particular for the Orthodox celebration. The water is blessed and taken to churches and homes.

The second fact to remember is that in the above outline, there is one exception: the Armenian Church. It has lived in the church of Jerusalem since the start of its existence and has been rooted in it for its most ancient liturgical tradition, like it, it did not include the 25th December in its calendar; and when the two Churches separated permanently, it kept, except for a brief period in the 6th century, the calendar of the past: it therefore kept the ancient meaning of memory of the Nativity for the Epiphany and in a desire of fidelity to its monophysite tradition, it developed in it the memory of the baptism, already present in the past, as mentioned, in different Oriental Churches. It thus stressed liturgically, containing it in a single festivity, the single nature (because this is what the term monophysism means) of Jesus the man who appeared in birth in Bethlehem and Jesus the God, manifested in the celestial voice during the baptism. A historical clarification was added in time, further legitimizing the custom: the baptism of Jesus took place on the same day as his birth, exactly thirty years later. This comes from an exegesis, to our way of thinking slightly forced, of Luke 3,21-23. The visible consequence of all this is that the Armenian Church is totally absent from the Oriental Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, and on the feast of the Epiphany it does not go to the Jordan, but to Bethlehem, where between the evening and the night it celebrates in the basilica the two mysteries mentioned above.

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