Over the years, liturgical practices in the Episcopal Church have shifted. Indeed, some would say that the 1979 revisions to the Book of Common Prayer mark the ascendency of the Anglo-Catholic side of the church. But in all of this, the church has picked and chosen from its Catholic heritage, while largely ignoring practices from Orthodoxy. And falling through these cracks is the Feast of Epiphany, which even in the Roman Church gets less attention than it previously did.
Among western traditions, Epiphany is one of the three oldest and greatest feasts, along with Christmas and Easter. It marks the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the form of the Three Magi. It also marks the manifestation of this divinity at his baptism in the River Jordan; and his first miracle at Cana. As such, it is celebrated on January 6, but often transferred to the closest Sunday.
Among eastern traditions, Epiphany is often referred to as the Theophany and celebrated January 19, with the emphasis on the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, versus the visit of the Three Magi. In these churches, the feast ranks third, after Easter and Pentecost. On this day, many consider all water to be holy, and will immerse themselves three times in recognition of the Trinity.
In recent years, the ancient tradition of the priest traveling to parishioners’ homes and marking the initials of the Magi, traditionally Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in chalk above the doors of homes and churches, has been revived in some churches within the Anglican Communion, including in Canada and the United States. Other ancient traditions have been rendered obsolete by technology, including the custom of announcing the date of Easter at the Feast of Epiphany.
Hallmark holidays kill the holy day
Today, however, the highly commercialized Hallmark holidays of Easter and Christmas have done a number on Epiphany. Indeed, after the run-up to Christmas and the extravanganza that many churches put on for the Nativity, replete with banks of flowers, brass bands and more, the Sunday on which Epiphany is celebrated is often marked by light church attendance.
Nor is that surprising, for other than ensuring that the vestments and flowers are white, many Episcopal churches pay scant attention to this third great holy day.
That’s not to suggest that Hallmark up the ante and launch a line of Epiphany cards and related trappings.
But as the church dithers about revisions to the Book of Common Prayer — revisions that may never come to pass, given the downward trajectory of the Episcopal Church — this may be an appropriate time for the church to consider restoring Epiphany to its ancient role as the third great feast of the church.
A personal note
While I have left the Episcopal Church, for many years my favorite holiday was Epiphany.
Because it is the first time in the gospels that we see humanity proactively respond to Jesus.
Yes, Mary and Joseph responded to a divine calling.
But Epiphany is marked by something different, and in some ways far greater.
It is marked by the realization that something amazing had happened in Bethlehem.
The gospels are mysteriously silent as to how the Magi recognized the miracle that had happened, or how they connected the star in the east with the ancient prophesies. And yet, they traveled great distances, at a time when travel itself was risky, carrying rare and costly gifts. Thus we see a response based on trust, or a leap of faith, if you will.
Because of this special significance to me, and the connection I had with Epiphany, even as a child, I chose the 12th day of Christmas, or Epiphany Eve, to have my relationship with my husband Mike blessed in 2013. In those days, it was not legal for us to marry in Virginia, and we did so later that year at St. John’s Lafayette Square. The day was glorious, with glorious weather and friends from around the country in attendance. And with the church still decorated for Christmas, the day was doubly special.
Looking to the future
Perhaps if the church were to spend more time focusing on the message of the great feast of Epiphany, versus treating it as an afterthought to Christmas, it would become more aligned with the message of the gospels. That in turn might well lead to a more faith-oriented approach to church, in which real Christianity replaces clericalism and celebrations of holidays that are nothing but bundles of cultural reference points, like having turkey at Thankgiving and ham at Christmas.
Of course, reexamining the role of Epiphany as one of the great feasts of the church will not even come close to solving the myriad problems facing the Episcopal church.
But its a start.
That would be in positive contrast to the current situation, where attendance at Episcopal worship increasingly correlates exclusively with having turkey at Thanksgiving, ham at Christmas, and other cultural reference points that have little connection with Christianity. But when the denomination abandon