Nativity, Epiphany and Baptism: A three in one Feast
Over the last few weeks we’ve celebrated three great feasts of the Church; namely the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ. These are three great feasts of the revelation of God to man in Christ Jesus and to begin to understand something of their message we must first look at their evolution.
It’s a little known fact that these three great feasts celebrated on the 25th of December, the 6th of January and the first Sunday after the 6th of January (or if you are in England, the 25th of December, a movable Sunday between the 2nd and 8th of January and the first Sunday after the Epiphany unless the Epiphany falls on the 7th or 8th in which case the Baptism of the Lord, as it was this year, is bumped to a Monday: Sometimes being English is more complicated than it’s worth!) were originally all celebrated on the 6th of January, an ancient date first mentioned in the 4th century but very likely to have been celebrated much earlier than this.
The original feast was hugely rich and celebrated the revelation of the Creator to the creation in Christ Jesus by looking at the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ and the wedding feast at Cana. In the 4th century the Nativity of Christ was separated from these other remembrances of the incarnation by the Church of Rome and commemorated on another day, the 25th of December. This Roman feast quickly spread throughout Christendom and so we found ourselves with two celebrations of God’s revelation in Christ. Over time in the West, the feast of the Epiphany became an emphasis of the Adoration of the Magi over and above a celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. The East still retains the feast of the Epiphany, or Theophany as it is commonly called in the East, as primarily a celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. In 1955 the Roman Church, noting the change in emphasis of the feast of the Epiphany, again instituted a new feast for the Baptism of the Lord – originally on the 13th of January but quickly moved to the Sunday after Epiphany (unless you’re English!).
So we have three feasts in the West all celebrating separate aspects of the same event; a truly rich liturgical heritage and a whole season of the Church (Christmastide) with the Baptism of the Lord as the pivotal feast moving us from Christmas to Ordinary Time. We’ve already seen that these three feasts spring from one feast of the Incarnation, of God’s revelation to mankind, but what are the three separate aspects of that event commemorated on these three days?
On the feast of the Nativity we celebrate God becoming man in a particular place and time; Israel in the 1st Century. A child is born in the heart of God’s chosen nation and he is adored by that nation in Mary and Joseph and the coming of the shepherds to the crib – A particular revelation of God to the nation of Israel.
“‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Lk 2:15-20
On the feast of the Epiphany the horizon is widened as the magi, astrologers from far away kingdoms, come in recognition of the Lord and adore him, bringing gifts that represent kingship, priesthood and burial. In this feast Christ’s kingship of all peoples is revealed as those alien to Israel adore the Christ Child and recognise his kingship, his priesthood and his sacrificial death to come in a way that expands on his coming at Christmas. Not only is Christ God Incarnate but he is God incarnate come to fulfil a specific purpose.
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Mt 2:11
On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord a third aspect of Christ’s incarnation is revealed. He is Lord not just of the peoples but of all creation and in his baptism he sanctifies the waters, the primordial element of the Scriptures. Christ in his baptism is revealed as King of all creation and he sanctifies the primordial element of creation thus making clear his purpose to make all things new and revealing him as the new primordial element as the Spirit hovers over him who sanctifies the waters.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Gen 1:1-2
“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.” Gen 1:9
“When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Mt 3:16
In this moment when Christ’s true purpose is revealed, the remaking of all things, so too is his true nature revealed – “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Mt 3:17 and at the same time through Christ as the image we see something of the hidden God; Trinity, three in one not unlike this great trilogy of feasts.