The Liturgy of Christmas and Epiphany

The celebration of Jesus’ birth and his manifestation as the Son of God come in a pair of seasons with common characteristics. These seasons have been particularly popular in western Christendom and were, in the past, times of such levity and rejoicing that Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought to do away with them. In the last century, when the Puritan influence had waned, Christmas became popular in this country again, but by then the churches had all but lost their memory of the old feast. As a result, Epiphany season and the intervening Twelve Days of Christmas were not part of the secular celebration. A host of new secular customs and legends developed during Advent primarily as a means of supporting business. We need to recover our own special heritage if we are to make Christmas and Epiphany central to our faith and life again.

Recent historical studies have found that the original reason for setting the celebrations of Christ’s birth and his manifestation on December 25th and January 6th, respectively, was related to the date of his death and resurrection. Early Christians believed that the date of Jesus’ death was March 25th. They also assumed that, our Lord being perfect, even the span of his life in the world would be perfect; accordingly, they assumed that his life in the world began on March 25th also, on which date they celebrated his conception. We still use that date to celebrate the conception of Christ—the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Therefore, the birth of Christ is celebrated nine months later.

The date of January 6th resulted from the fact that, in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the calendar differed from that in the west. The eastern date corresponding to the western December 25th was January 6th. By the fourth century, the eastern and western calendars had been brought into line; and so the east had its feast—still on January 6th—twelve days after the western feast. Since the eastern feast had centered on Christ’s manifestation and that in the west on his birth, the two areas began to borrow each other’s feasts and ended up with the two celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany.

Underlying these two feasts, then, is the central proclamation of Christianity: the dying and rising of Jesus. Recovery of this earliest level of meaning can help us rescue Christmas from a limited emphasis on the birth of a baby; for that birth is of ultimate importance only because of the saving event of his death and resurrection.

As the church took over the Roman Empire in the fourth century, its celebration of Jesus’ birth and manifestation was influenced by pagan feasts of the Roman world. In Rome, late December was the time of celebrating the rebirth of the sun god. The church took over the pagan image of the sun and, combining that image with the biblical one of light overcoming darkness, supplanted the pagan feast with the Birth of the Son of God. In the eastern church, pagan customs of Egypt were to influence the January 6th celebration. In Egypt, the pagans celebrated the birth of the god of the Nile at that time, and this water emphasis led the Egyptian and other eastern churches to celebrate Jesus’ Baptism at the time of Epiphany. So a second level of meaning, derived from the pagan world’s life, was added to these feasts.

As the church spread northward into Europe and Britain, it encountered other old religious customs connected with winter, and many of them also affected the celebration—hence our use of evergreens and mistletoe, which were symbols of the nature religions of Britain and Germany. Thus, ancient images of light overcoming darkness and life in the midst of the cold and apparent death of winter, along with corresponding rites and symbols, were often preserved in the church. Finally, after a few hundred years, as customs and ideas spread from east to west and back, the church had a pair of festivals, one celebrating the birth, the other the manifestation, or Epiphany, of Christ.

Eastern Christians still have the Baptism of Christ as their primary theme on January 6th. In dry countries, this is connected to the blessing of wells and springs, and in seagoing countries, to the blessing of the sea and of ships—both holdovers from pre-Christian ceremonies. At least partly because of Charlemagne’s purported discovery of the bodies of the Wise Men, which he enshrined in his cathedral in Cologne, western Christians came to focus on the coming of the Magi as Christ’s Epiphany to the Gentiles. The story that there were three Magi, and that they were kings, perhaps comes from this same period.

Christ’s Baptism was a secondary theme in the western church during Epiphany. It has been made an even stronger theme in the liturgical revisions of most western churches in the past few years by being celebrated on the First Sunday after Epiphany.

The period of Christmas and Epiphany has three primary days and themes: Christmas, or the Nativity of Christ (December 25th); Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (January 6th); and the First Sunday after Epiphany: the Baptism of Christ. Other celebrations came to be associated with this time as well. The three days following December 25th commemorate Stephen, the first martyr; John, the disciple closest to Jesus; and the Holy Innocents, the children Herod ordered slain in Bethlehem in his vain attempt to destroy the Christ. The biblical account of Jesus’ naming at his circumcision, on the eighth day after his birth—in obedience to Old Testament law—gives us the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ on January 1st. The significance of his name (in Hebrew, Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves”) is that it reveals his nature and his ministry. (Stephen, John, and the Innocents are moved a day later when one of them falls on Sunday. Holy Name and Epiphany are always celebrated on their dates, even when they fall on Sunday.)

There are three sets of Proper readings for Christmas. The Gospel for the night celebration on the eve is the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. At the early celebration on Christmas day, we hear of the shepherds’ visit to the infant. Then, at the later celebration, we hear John’s magnificent poem on the pre-existent Word of God: the Word who is God, who is the instrument of God’s creation, who is the light of all people, and who became flesh in Jesus. (When there are not three Eucharists in a congregation, any of the readings may be used.)

The First Sunday after Christmas is focused again on the prologue to John’s Gospel, but it continues the reading for a few more verses, dealing with the new relationship between God and humankind, which is characterized by grace rather than law. The Second Sunday focuses on Jesus and his parents, with a choice for the Gospel reading of one of the accounts of his infancy and childhood.

On Epiphany, the theme is the manifestation, or showing forth, of Christ to the Gentiles in the account of the Wise Men. Light is the primary symbol, with the Star of Bethlehem as the sign that Christ, the light of the world, has come. On the following Sunday, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. This is one of the four days of the year which the Book of Common Prayer designates as baptismal days. (The other three are Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day.) Even if there is no one to be baptized that day, we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant as we rejoice that Christ, who was manifested as Son of God in his Baptism, is now made manifest in us, his church, through our Baptism.

In the weeks after Epiphany, other events in Jesus’ ministry are celebrated, events such as his first miracle, changing water into wine; his first healing; his calling of the disciples; his first preaching. These events reveal him as God’s Son and help us explore more deeply the unlimited extent of his love and our role—as the members of his Body—in revealing him to the world.

The liturgical texts for this period are very expressive of its meaning and embody many of the symbols, both biblical and cultural, which came to be part of the season:

“…you gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother; so that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become your children” (Preface of the Incarnation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 378).

“…you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born…of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit” (Collect for Christmas Day, BCP, page 213).

“…you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives” (Collect for the First Sunday after Christmas, BCP, page 213).

“…you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world” (Collect for the Feast of the Holy Name, BCP, page 213).

“…grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity” (Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas, BCP, page 214).

“…in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of your Son, Jesus Christ” (Proper Preface of Epiphany, BCP, page 378).

“…grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior” (Collect for the First Sunday after Epiphany, BCP, page 214).

From The Rite Light: Reflections on the Sunday Readings and Seasons of the Church Year. Copyright © 1998 by Michael W. Merriman. Church Publishing Incorporated, New York.