I am continually amazed by how varied Christian traditions are. I was raised as an American Protestant, so I regularly assume that Western Christian practices can be applied worldwide. Eventually, I will learn the error of my ways.
Monday, January 6th is Epiphany. For many Western Christians, this holiday celebrates the wise men’s visit to the baby Jesus. Most churches honor the event on the nearest Sunday, which will be on January 5th this year. The story of the Magi’s visit (Matthew 2:1-12) is read, along with Old Testament passages that apparently predict such an event. The Christmas season officially ends, churches remove their Christmas decorations, and we get our annual respite from the song commemorating each of the 12 days of Christmas complete with their ridiculous and outlandish gifts. (11 Lords a Leaping? Really?)
But that’s about it. Frankly, it’s a tad boring compared to traditions from elsewhere in the world. In many Spanish-speaking countries, children write letters to the wise men requesting gifts. The wise men, riding on their camels (which were probably horses, by the way), visit all the children on the night before Epiphany and bring gifts. Children prepare food and drink for the wise men and their animals to assist them during their long Epiphany-Eve journey. It’s essentially a twist on the Santa Claus/Christmas Eve/reindeer story that is decidedly less Nordic and more Biblical. In fact, focusing on Epiphany and the gifts from the wise men is actually the best response to the “war on Christmas” I’ve heard yet.
In Mexico and various European countries, cakes are made with a small figure of the baby Jesus baked inside. Whoever finds the figurine is the winner – although what is won, exactly, varies from place to place. Obviously, this ritual is similar to the King Cakes baked in the southern U.S. during Mardi Gras, which occurs at the end of the Epiphany season in the church calendar. Parades, caroling, dressing up in costumes, and a version of trick-or-treat can also be part of Epiphany rituals around the world.
Epiphany is even less similar to my American Protestant upbringing in the Orthodox Church. It is still celebrated on January 6th, but in many cases, it’s not even called Epiphany. The word “epiphany” basically means “a revelation” or “a manifestation.” (That’s why it’s is used when people have gained an important insight.) The point of the early Church holiday, Epiphany, was to celebrate Jesus’ revelation or manifestation as the Messiah/Savior. There are several Biblical events that seem to fit the bill – Jesus’ birth in a manger along with the angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host,” Jesus’ naming/circumcision, his presentation in the temple, the visit of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and his first miracle (changing water into wine). To emphasize the point – that Epiphany is about Jesus’ revealing himself as God – this Feast Day is often called Theophany in the Orthodox Church. The word “theophany” means, more specifically, “the manifestation of God to man.” Thus, the holiday commemorates all the events in Jesus’ life that clearly portray him as the Son of God, with special emphasis in his baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is recorded in three of the Gospels. Here’s the version from Mark, which is often read during the Orthodox Great Feast of Theophany.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his earthly ministry, which would eventually lead to his death on the cross. For traditional Christians, it also serves as a visual representation of the Holy Trinity. Obviously, Jesus/God the Son was present in the waters of the Jordan. The voice from heaven represents God the Father. And the dove represents God the Holy Spirit. It’s a great example of theophany.
For this reason, the Orthodox Church places a great deal of emphasis on water. Holy water is used throughout the year for baptisms and blessings. Homes, icons, cars, palms branches, boats, food, and all manner of people can be blessed with holy water. You can even bless yourself by drinking a small amount. So where does this holy water come from? You guessed it. It is blessed by the priest on Theophany in a ritual known as the Great Blessing of Waters. The baptism story is read, the assigned hymns (troparia) are sung, and the priest blesses the waters with prayers and the sign of the cross. The church and its members are then blessed. In some cases, there is even a procession after the service when the priest blesses the homes of the congregants.
In Greece, another ritual is thrown into the mix. The priest throws a large crucifix into a body of water. Young males jump in to see who can retrieve it first. This tradition has been kept alive in Tarpon Springs, FL, a relatively small community with a relatively large population of Greek Americans. The event, offered to the community by St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, includes a procession of kids dressed in traditional Greek costumes, clergy members, choirs, and bands. The ritual draws crowds of over 20,000, and a dove is also released. I’m sure the entire custom is aided by the fact that the water in FL is probably warmer than in most other parts of America this time of the year.
Clearly, there are many ways to enjoy Epiphany/Theophany. The traditional Western version of the holiday – the visit of the wise men – is a great cross-cultural story, complete with visitors from a strange, far-away place. So why not change things up a bit? Have your kids write “Santa” letters to the wise men. Save at least one Christmas gift for Epiphany. Bake a cake. (Most bakery supply stores carry small baby figurines year round.) Bless yourself – or someone else – with holy water. Or, simply take a polar plunge. You’ll be in good company.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Read more about the Orthodox Feast of Epiphany/Theophany