The History of Epiphany

The celebration of Jesus’ birth and other significant days in his life were celebrated very early in Christianity. The first affirmation of this that we have in writing comes from Clement of Alexandria who penned a work titled “The Stromateis” around AD 175. In his work he makes mention of those who celebrate the day of Jesus’ birth but suggests that it is foolish to assign a specific day to the event. Today we do not claim to know the actual day of Jesus’ birth, but we do recognize the value of the incarnation event. This event is the beginning of the climax of God’s plan of redemption.

The Eastern Church established Epiphany as a day to celebrate the birth, the visit from the Magi, his childhood, and the Baptism of Christ. They set the date for January 6 and the primary focus of the event to be celebrated was the Baptism of Jesus. This is an important event because it signifies the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The picture above is the Jordan River, the place where Jesus was Baptized. The celebration also includes focus on the miracle at the wedding in Cana (which also occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry). Many Orthodox churches consider the Baptism of Christ to be the first step towards the Crucifixion, thus making it a very significant in his life and ministry.

While the practice of celebrating the incarnation was adopted early in the life of the church, the first mention of the event as a formal liturgical practice comes from Ammianus Marcellinus in AD 361.

The Western church chose to celebrate the incarnation on December 25. The first reference to this is on an ancient calendar dating to AD 331.

Origen, who lived in the second century (like Clement) condemned such practices and condemned the celebratory practices of the Romans for worshiping their gods on supposed birthdays. This means that sometime between AD 200 and AD 330 the practice of celebrating the birth of Christ became not only an acceptable practice, but also a liturgical event. With the Western Church celebrating on December 25 and the Eastern Church celebrating on January 6, we are left with the idea of a 12 day celebration. The time between these two dates is traditionally why we have the 12 days of Christmas.

Christmas is a thoroughly Christian holiday. Our practices and traditions do not come from paganism, even if some pagan celebrations occurred on December 25. The practices of the church all have roots within the church.

This year as we come to the close of the holiday season, let us like those who celebrated Epiphany in earlier centuries, focus not only on the birth of Christ, but also on his Baptism. Let us remember that his birth was necessary to allow him to be sacrificed in our place on the Cross, but let us remember that his Baptism showed the Jews that he was God’s anointed Messiah who would take away the sins of the world.