We just had an Epiphany; let’s talk about it. By that I mean the Catholic Solemnity we just enjoyed, the tail of the Christmas season just ended.
Before I was a Catholic, I knew the word “epiphany”, I knew there was a Catholic holiday by that name, and I knew it had something to do with the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end in the Twelfth Night. By the way, Twelfth Night is famous to non-Catholics as a very funny Shakespeare play; it was performed for Twelfth Night celebrations in 1602.
Catholics have many holiday seasons, I now know: Christmastide starts Christmas Eve and ends some time around Epiphany. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas with their following weekdays (or none, if the fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve, as will happen in 2023). Lent which starts on Ash Wednesday (just after Shrove Tuesday!) and ends on Maundy Thursday (for Roman Catholics) before the Easter Triduum, and then after Easter we have even more Eastertide (until Pentecost). The bits that are left are called Ordinary Time.
Oh, and in some traditions, there are other seasons, such as Epiphanytide, Shrovetide, Whitsuntide, Embertide, and who knows what else. I need a chart to keep track. The US Bishops have posted a chart, for US dioceses.
The Liturgy of the Hours is organized around these seasons. The fat little breviary books that we use (if we don’t use an online help like iBreviary.org) come in four volumes: one volume for Advent through the Baptism of the Lord, one volume for Lent through Pentecost, and two volumes for Ordinary Time.
So, if Christmas celebrates Christ’s nativity, and Easter celebrates His Passion, what event does Epiphany celebrate? The complicated answer is that Epiphany (with its season) celebrates a miscellaneous handful of events: The visit of the Three Magi (or “sages” or “wise men”), the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water to wine, and the baptism of Jesus. Different traditions commemorate these events differently; for Roman Catholics the Magi get first billing, and the Baptism of the Lord is placed on a nearby day. Eastern Christians celebrate the Baptism under the name Epiphany or Theophany.
This combined holiday (or season) calls the question: Why are these events combined? The Breviary gives us clues, in the Divine Office Morning Prayer for Ephiphany. The suggested hymn (Quem stella vide pulchrior) sings about the star followed by the Magi. The antiphons are:
Christ has appeared to us; come, let us adore him.
Mighty seas and rivers, bless the Lord; springs of water, sing his praises.
Jerusalem, your light has come; the glory of the Lord dawns upon you. Men of every race shall walk in the splendor of your sunrise.
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.
What do they tell us? That Christ has appeared and shines on the whole human race, and is receiving adoration in return. And that there is a special wedding happening. And water takes on a new role, in several different ways. How does this connect?
The word “epiphany” is the key. It is Greek, appearing (in its various forms) in the Greek Scriptures. The root pha refers to light, and specifically light in its role of making things visible. The words “phosphorus” (light-bearer), “photograph” (light-writing), and phos (Greek for light) all derive from this root. The words “cellophane”, “phenomenon”, “emphatic”, and phaino also derive from it. Phaino means to shine, and therefore also to “reveal” (shine on something), and also “appear” (reveal oneself).
The specific word “epiphany” (Greek epiphaneia) is a compound that means “upon-shining” and also “upon-revealing”. Epiphany happens when God (or something else) shines upon an object, and the shining light makes that object clear. It also happens when God himself shines, making Himself clear.
So the first antiphon brings together the themes of Epiphany: “Christ has appeared to us”. The shining star appeared to the Magi to lead them to Christ; that was epiphany, a light of revelation, upon them. About the water and wine, the gospel of John comments, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.” The Greek word here for “manifested” is a pha word (ephanerosen), so Jesus manifesting himself in bright glory is exactly an epiphany. (In English New Testaments, “manifest” usually translates a pha word.) In the baptism of Jesus, Matthew records that “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him”. There are no pha words in this account, but it is clearly a revelatory moment. Jesus in His baptism, Jesus at Cana, baby Jesus before the foreign dignitaries: These are all the Epiphany, the bright revealing of the Son of God.
What about the waters? They don’t show up with the Magi (one thinks of camels and deserts with them), but waters are in the other stories. The common thread is that water, in its bright clarity, becomes sanctified by contact with Jesus and is raised to a new dignity. It is from moments like these in the Gospels that we get the idea of holy water. It is in these moments that the old Psalm is fulfilled in a new way: “Springs of water, sing His praises”.
Of course, epiphanies come in many forms, and not all of them are from God Almighty. Human beings concoct many epiphanies. Just think of where people use spotlights and floodlights, and you will see both literal shinings-upon, and attempts, more or less worthy, of setting up grand displays and revelations. But Christians know that any human revelation or display is true and worthy only to the extent that it reflects the wisdom and dignity of Christ, and honors God’s image in mankind.
As an example of an epiphany that tries to do without God, the oldest written music in the world also uses a pha word. It is the Song of Seikilos, engraved on a tombstone in an ancient Greek musical notation. For comparison with the shining of Jesus, it goes like this:
While you live, shine! (phainou)
Never you grieve at all:
Just a little is this life,
And Time demands its toll.
This is about as good as you can do without God, but Jesus managed to shine, despite his death, on all of us, and show us a way beyond the grasp of Time.
By the way, there is a second pha group in Greek as well, giving rise to words like “fame”, “fate”, “profess”, “megaphone”, “euphemism”, and Greek phone and phemi, which mean “voice” and “speak”. There appears to be a pre-Greek connection between the two pha groups, at the level of Indo-European. Apparently our deep ancestors drew some kind of connection between shining and speaking. As do we, if you think about it. As does God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” [John.1]
The first pha group in Greek appears throughout the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.
Though the OT was first written in Hebrew, a standard Greek translation was made, called the Septuagint. (It is a Latin name, abbreviated “LXX” for Latin reasons.) The LXX was used in the time and place of Jesus and his disciples. When the New Testament quotes the Old, it usually quotes the LXX text directly. So, without moving into Hebrew, we can ask if there are any epiphanies in the Old Testament, and the answer is yes. I will close with some selections from both Old and New Testaments which may be familiar to you (some are used in the Divine Office).
Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine (epiphanai) upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. [Num.6]
O God, bring us back; let your face shine (epiphanon) on us, and we shall be saved. [Ps.80/breviary]
The light shines (phainei) in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John.1]
…everything exposed by the light (photos) becomes visible (phaneroutai), for everything that becomes visible (phaneroumen) is light (phos). Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine (epiphausei) on you.” [Eph.5]
And the city [the New Jerusalem] has no need of sun or moon to shine (phainosin) on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. [Rev.21]