The Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus

Coming of the Magi: Armenian manuscript


Christian churches of the east see the mystery of the Incarnation somewhat differently than the western church in their liturgies. For the western church the Feast of Christmas is its key celebration. The eastern churches see the Feast of the Epiphany, closely connected to the Baptism of Jesus, as their most important Christmas celebration.

For most western Christians Christmas is over now; the trees are down, the carols no longer sung; the approaching celebration of the Epiphany/Baptism seems almost an afterthought. For eastern Christians, the Epiphany and the Baptism are the climax of the Christmas celebrations. Why?

Saint Proclus of Constantinople explains what these feasts mean to the eastern churches:

“The feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas. At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source unfolds and, as it were, clothes the river. On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger;  but on today’s feast the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”

The mystery of the incarnation is complete for the eastern churches when Jesus enters the waters of Jordan. The earth “rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger.” Now ” the sea is glad” as Jesus enters the Jordan River. The Word brings life to all creation, not just the human world.

Both churches of the east and west recall the story of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel on the Feast of the Epiphany, but the western church sees the story more historically. The magi bring gifts to the Christ Child and return home. Afterwards, the gospel will be brought to their lands by Paul and other Christian missionaries. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says in his final instruction to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel.

For the eastern church, when Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan he immediately reaches the whole of creation and all its people, represented by the Magi and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This approach strongly supports an environmental spirituality.

Maximus of Turin, another early Christian writer, offers this reflection on Jesus’ birth and his baptism:
“Then he was born from a virgin; at his baptism he is born in mystery. When he was born, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice and says: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by loving testimony. His mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.”

Though their emphasis in their liturgies differ the two churches are one in their belief in the essential mysteries of faith. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

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