The Epiphany

of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles

The office hymn for the Epiphany and its Octave, ‘Hostis Herodes impie’ (translated in the Hymnal as ‘When Christ’s appearing was made known’ [132], and the hymn for Christmastide, ‘A solis ortus cardine’ (‘From east to west, from shore to shore’ [77]) are parts of a long abecedarian poem on the life of Christ by Caelius Sedulius, a late-classical Christian poet.

Picking up the Incarnation narrative with Herod, the Epiphany portion of the hymn encapsulates the three events traditionally celebrated as part of Christ’s Epiphany: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Our Lord, and the First Miracle at the wedding at Cana. These also make up the Antiphon to the Magnificat on the Feast of the Epiphany in the Roman Rite:

Now do we celebrate a holy day adorned by three miracles :
today a star led the wise men to the manger :
today water was made wine at the wedding feast :
today Christ vouchsafed to be baptized of John in Jordan
that he might save us. Alleluia.

The first of these long ago took precedence in the Roman tradition, though the third was always celebrated on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany until the reforms of the later twentieth century, since when it is read only in Year C of the three-year lectionary cycle. (It is a rare privilege this year to be able to celebrate these three aspects of the Epiphany on three successive Sundays.) Several fine hymns deal with the visit of the Magi, their gifts, and the light that led them, including ‘As with gladness men of old’ (a nineteenth-century composition), ‘What star is this, with beams so bright’ (a translation of one of a number of Latin office hymns written by Charles Coffin for a revised Paris Breviary of 1736), and ‘Earth has many a noble city’ (part of a very long hymn for Epiphany by the fourth-century Spanish lawyer and governor turned Christian ascetic Aurelius Clemens Prudentius). The latter demonstrates that by the fourth century the Magi’s gifts had already gained their symbolic interpretation: gold for kingship, incense for priesthood, and embalming oil for death. We tend to forget, remembering only the first stanza and refrain and lulled by the rather picturesque tune, that even ‘We three kings of Orient are’ plainly sets forth this interpretation of these gifts and the feast.

The Baptism of Our Lord, however, has always been the most important aspect of the Epiphany celebrated in the East, and the establishment in the West during those same twentieth-century reforms of a separate feast commemorating it has brought it back into focus for us as well. For it is here – in one of two recorded appearances of the complete Trinity (the other being the Transfiguration, which the Episcopal Church celebrates at the close of the Epiphany Season as well as on the traditional date of 6 August) – that Jesus is publicly manifested as the Son. Moreover, here, in his baptism, Christ’s death and resurrection are figured; indeed, icons of the Baptism of Christ often show the gates of Hades and/or the Serpent being trodden underfoot by Our Lord (further demonstration that the Epiphany is, as the Eastern tradition has it, a ‘little Easter’). It is here also, in a way, that the union often spoken of in Scripture and liturgy between the Bridegroom (Christ) and the Bride (his Church) is effected – for John the Baptizer is the ‘friend of the Bridegroom’ (Jn 3.29) whose role it is to witness the marriage (and what is marriage but another sacrament of self-sacrificial love?). The antiphon to the Benedictus at Lauds on the Epiphany, again conflating the three aspects of the Epiphany, puts it thus:

Today the Church is joined to her heavenly Bridegroom :
because in Jordan Christ hath washed away her offences :
the wise men with their offerings hasten to the royal marriage :
and the guests are regaled with water made wine. Alleluia.

Finally, it is in the Baptism of Christ that Christian baptism finds it source, for the waters in which we are baptized are the very same as those into which Our Lord was plunged. This is no doubt true from a scientific point of view (i.e., the conservation of matter, or the hydrological cycle), but all the moreso from a mystical one: for according to the patristic theology of solidarity, Christ sanctified whatever part of human life he took on, and furthermore Christ’s divine energy could not be contained in his body but flowed out from it – in the case of his baptism, making the Jordan and thus all water efficacious for baptism. The patristically inclined shapers of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) took up this idea in their revision of the blessing of baptismal water: ‘by the Baptisme of thy wel beloved sonne Jesus Christe, thou dydest sanctifie the fludde Jordan, and al other waters to this misticall washing away of synne’ (it is to be regretted that the rich imagery of this prayer and its Roman counterpart is largely absent from the bcp1979 ‘Thanksgiving over the Water’).

It is therefore appropriate that, the ancient memory of baptisms at Epiphany having been maintained in both East and West by the custom of blessing water on this day or its Eve, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord should once again have become one of the main baptismal occasions of the Church, with a forty-day period of preparation (Advent) and with a proper Vigil [bcp 175, 896; bos], just as at Easter and Pentecost.

For those who will be baptized this week, and for ourselves, the Church offers this Collect for the Baptism of Our Lord:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.