EPIPHANY, FEAST OF THE: A festival celebrated in honor of Christ on Jan. 6, or some day near that date. It is first found among the Basilidians in Egypt, with whom it was the commemoration of the baptism of Christ. This was also the main reference of the festival when its observance became general in the Eastern Church. In some instances the birth of Christ was also commemorated on that day. But this meaning was not retained when, at the close of the fourth century, the Eastern Church adopted the custom of the Western, to celebrate the birth on Dec. 25. The Epiphany festival is first mentioned in the West in the fourth century. It is possible that in Gaul at least the birth of Christ was celebrated on that day; but in later times the celebration in the West generally referred to the worship of the Magi in chronological connection with the celebration of the birth on Dec. 25. References to the baptism occur, nevertheless, down to the Middle Ages, which makes it probable that wherever the festival was celebrated in the West before Christmas was fixed for Dec. 25, it concerned the baptism of Christ. In the Middle Ages the worship of the Magi was retained as the principal fact. Yet mention was also made of the miracle at Cana, and even of the resuscitation of Lazarus. The idea was the manifestation of the glory of Christ, as may be seen from the Roman Gospels for the Sundays after Epiphany which relate his being found in the Temple, the manifestation of his glory at Cana, the faith of the centurion, and the stilling of the tempest. The special functions which marked the day in the East were the preliminary steps to baptism and the blessing of the font, and the announcement of the date of Easter. Among popular customs some remains of the dramatic representation of the coming of the Magi have been retained in certain places.
Luther reverting to the original meaning of the day desired that preachers should refer to Christ's baptism and to Christian baptism in general, and himself preached on that subject. But he did not succeed in imposing his view on the Lutheran Church, which retained Matt. ii. 1-12 as the Scripture lesson for the day. Before the end of the sixteenth century the celebration of the day was abolished in some territories; among the Reformed it ceased entirely. Even among Lutherans the festival fell more and more into disuse, as unnecessary, or was transferred to the following Sunday, as in Prussia in 1754. At present there is much diversity of practise: in some parts the day is still kept as a great festival, in others it is a so-called "half holy-day," i.e., a day of purely ritual observance, with a church service; in others again it is not celebrated at all, though the following Sundays are still counted as Sundays after Epiphany. The efforts to restore the day are not likely to he successful. It follows too soon after Christmas and it is difficult to give it a special significance in addition to that of the greater festival. A suggestion that the day should be celebrated as a general missionary festival has this against it, that in many places missionary festivals have already been introduced with special peculiarities, and it would be undesirable to interfere with them. Thus only Luther's suggestion would remain, to make the day a baptismal festival. But this suggestion also has little prospect of successful execution. The festival, in our conditions, suffers from the difficulty of retaining the day as an ecclesiastical festival while it has attached to it no generally acknowledged special event to be celebrated. [In the modern Roman Catholic Church, it is the double of the first class, with an octave, and the Anglican Communion has retained it among the greater or "red-letter" holy-days, with a special service appointed.]
Bibliography: Bingham, Origins, book xx., chap. iv.; E. Marten, De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus, iii. 42, Venice, 1783; A. J. Binterim, Denkwürdigkeiten, v. 1, pp. 310 sqq., 7 vols., Mainz, 1837-41; P. de Lagarde, Ueber das. Weihnachtsfest, in Mitteilungen, vol. iv., Göttingen, 1891; T. Kliefoth, Liturgische Abhandlungen, 8 vols., Rostock, 1854-61; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship, passim, London, 1904; DCA, i. 617-621 (a worthy account).