Some Notes Around Epiphany

Mosaic of the Magi, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
The Feast of Epiphany brings a rich opportunity to look at some varied themes that surround the feast, which are expressed richly through the sacred liturgy, through sacred art and also in terms of its associated customs. While the Latin rite tends to think of the feast of Epiphany most particularly in connection with the Magi, the Feast of the Epiphany actually has multiple aspects, or manifestations, associated with it. This is captured by two antiphons within the Divine Office for Epiphany:

"We celebrate a holy day adorned with three mysteries: this day the star led the Magi to the manger; this day wine was made from water at the wedding; this day Christ willed to be baptized in the Jordan by John in order to save us, alleluia."

-- Antiphon for the Magnificat, Second Vespers
"Today the Church hath been joined to her heavenly Spouse, for Christ hath washed away her sins in the Jordan; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal nuptials, and the guests are gladdened with wine made from water, alleluia."
-- Antiphon for the Benedictus, Lauds

As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes: "Owing no doubt to the vagueness of the name Epiphany, very different manifestations of Christ's glory and Divinity were celebrated in this feast quite early in its history, especially the Baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Nativity, and the visit of the Magi."

Indeed, the icon the Byzantines associate with the "Epiphany" is not an icon of the Magi at the manger -- this rather appears within the icon of the Nativity -- instead, the icon associated with this feast is that of the Baptism of Christ:

Russian Icon of the Baptism of Christ
These various manifestations help to explain why there are various customs associated with this feast. In his excellent book, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs,  Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ, makes note of the following Epiphany customs which LAJ readers may find of interest:
SOLEMN BLESSING OF WATER - With the commemoration of Christ's baptism there was associated in the Orient from ancient times not only the custom of blessing baptismal water in the churches but also of solemnly blessing a nearby river or fountain in honor of the Lord's baptism. In Palestine it was the Jordan, of course, that received this blessing in a most colorful and solemn ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims would gather on its shores to step into the water after the rite, submerging three times to obtain the great blessing. In Egypt the Nile was thus blessed for many centuries...

In the cities of East Rome [Byzantium], Epiphany water was blessed in the church and given to the people to take home. Saint John Chrysostom claimed that this water was known to stay fresh through the whole year and even longer.

The Russians and other Slavs of the Greek Rite [Byzantine rite] observe the "blessing of water" on the twenty-fifth day after Easter (always a Wednesday) which they call "Mid-Pentecost." Priests and people walk in procession to a well or river, the water is solemnly blessed, and the faithful fetch a good supply to keep during the year.

In the Latin Church this blessing of water was introduced in the fifteenth century. The present rite of solemn blessing is to be performed on the vigil of Epiphany. The prayers, replacing older formulas, date from the year 1890. After the texts of the blessing the Roman Ritual gives the following instruction: "This blessed water should be distributed to the faithful, to be devoutly used by them in their homes, and also for the sick ones."
In short, the blessing of water on the Feast of the Epiphany is a custom found within both the Eastern and Western church, presumably -- as Weiser suggests -- associated with the baptism of the Lord.

Another custom associated with the Feast of the Epiphany is the blessing of homes and associated blessing of chalk.
BLESSING OF HOMES - The Roman ritual also provides a beautiful and impressive rite of blessing the homes of the faithful on the Feast of the Epiphany. This blessing is usually given by the pastor. After reciting the Magnificat, the priest sprinkles the rooms with holy water and incenses them, then recites the prayers... After the blessing the initials of the legendary names of the Magi -- Gaspar, Melchior Baltasar -- are written with white chalk on the inside of the door, framed by the number of the year, and all symbols are connected by the cross: 19+G+M+B+__. To sanctify even the chalk for this writing, there is a special "Blessing of Chalk on the Feast of the Epiphany" in the ritual.
Photo Credit: One Peter Five

Blessing of the chalk. Photo credit: Lawrence Lew

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