People, Look East: Christmas Epiphanies

With the new year we are happy to bring you a new series: “People, Look East.”

We hope you enjoy these brief posts that seek to deepen our understanding of the richness of the Christian tradition, especially those of the Eastern churches.

Since its beginnings, the church has used the liturgy as a catechetical or teaching moment. It was sometimes referred to as the “divine pedagogy.” To some extent, this has been obscured by later developments, but remnants of it can still be seen today. For example, the Gospel readings for the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent were used to structure the teaching that catechumens would receive in preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The three Gospel readings were from the Gospel of John: Chapter 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; Chapter 9, the cure of the man born blind; and Chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus. Each of these readings was used to introduce the catechumens into a deeper understanding. Once a central part of the Lenten experience, these readings are now secondary and optional in the lectionary.

A similar thing occurs in the Christmas season. Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was observed on 6 January. As such, most Christians see this as THE Epiphany. However, an older structure of the Christmas season observed a series of epiphanies that was narrated in the liturgical readings. The progression of epiphanies in the liturgical observance has been, over the years, obscured to a great extent.

While there are several words in the Greek New Testament translated as “revelation,” two are relevant here. One, apokalypsis in Greek, gives the name of the last book of the New Testament — the Apocalypse or the Book of Revelation (in the singular, not “Revelations”). The word is connected to the Greek kalyptra, meaning “a veil,” and connotes an unveiling.

The other word is epiphania, derived from the Greek verb phainō, which connotes a “shining forth or through.” The visit of the Magi to the Christ Child is clearly Matthew’s attempt to present the child as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles.” However, the visit of the Magi is not the only shining forth or revelation of who this child is. Although the other Gospels do not mention a visit of Magi, in Luke’s Gospel there is a revelation to shepherds. The heavenly choir informs the shepherds, “today … a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). Later, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elderly Simeon proclaims that Jesus is “a light of revelation (apokalypsis) to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32).

Although there are marked differences in the four Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus, all record that the Spirit descends on Jesus and he is declared and revealed as the beloved Son of God.

If John the Evangelist lays less stress on the Baptism of Jesus than do the other Gospel writers, he makes up for it in the narrative regarding the wedding at Cana. The wedding is set on the third day of Jesus’ public ministry (Jn 2:1-12). In the story, familiar to all, Jesus turns water into wine. However, there is an extremely important notice at the end of the narrative: This was the first of Jesus’ “signs” and “he revealed (ephanerōsen, derived from phainō) his glory and his disciples believed in him.”

Thus, the Gospels present a series of “epiphanies” in which the true nature and mission of Jesus are revealed and shine forth for the reader. All these epiphanies — except the wedding at Cana — are celebrated liturgically during the Christmas season. At one time the connection was stronger and the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Ordinary time was the wedding at Cana. Some vestiges of this can still be found in the Divine Office or Breviary. In the Benedictus antiphon in Morning Prayer for the Epiphany, we read, “Today the church was betrothed to the heavenly Bridegroom. Christ washed her of her sins in the Jordan. The Magi hastened with gifts to the Royal Wedding. Water was changed into wine and delighted the invited guests.” The Magnificat antiphon for Evening Prayer of the Epiphany also connects these different epiphanies or revelations.

Beginning with the angelic choir on Christmas morning and ending with the wedding at Cana, each epiphany in this progression provides a different, new and deeper insight into this child whose birth in Bethlehem Christians celebrate. The scriptural readings in the Christmas season provide the “divine pedagogy” that reveal Christ to the believer, deepen their faith and prepare them for the start of the ordinary time of the year.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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