In Defense of Holiday Excess, Advent, "Epiphany," etc.

As you might suspect, this isn’t exactly what it sounds like.

If the old Catholic Encyclopedia had their history right a century ago – for instance, their pieces about Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – then besides Pascha, the earliest big Christian feast was around January 6.

(I’m not a professional historian, but ISTM the CE catalogs alot of fascinating historical data, including about the Early Church. They have a potentially-misleading Rome-centrism, they buy into alot of the early-PC “pagan influences” theories about certain practices in Christianity, and they really don’t understand alot of the Orthodoxy, Eastern or Western, about which they report. But often from their ‘bricks’ an Orthodox might be able to build a more reasonable picture of aspects of the past than the CE itself does. Even I try.)

It seems Jan. 6 (on whatever calendar) commemorated the many manifestations of Christ’s “glory” or Divinity, from His Nativity to His Transfiguration, including not only His revelation to the Magi but also miracles during His ministry – healings, the changing of water to wine at Cana, feedings of thousands, the raising of Lazarus, etc. The CE doesn’t have a truly satisfactory reason as to the choice of this date. As they indicate, this date went by many related names, such as Theophany, Epiphany, Manifestation, Apparition, Day of Light, etc. Interestingly, this multifaceted Feastday is still echoed in the Latin Liturgy of the Hours – in particular the Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons on the day itself, as I experienced as a teenager studying for the Latin priesthood and religious life.

(In Orthodox liturgy as in Judaism and many other ancient cultures, every day begins with Vespers [Evening Prayer] the night before, and ends at the beginning of Vespers that evening. But in the Latin Church, only Sundays and major feastdays begin the night before, and paradoxically, they continue through the ‘evening of,’ so they have two Vespers services, First and Second Vespers [or Evening Prayer I and II]. Several Latin services of the hours include Gospel Canticles, ie, hymns/poetry from the New Testament. Morning Prayer – what English-speaking Orthodox call Matins or Orthros – includes the Benedictus or Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of St. Luke 1: 68-79, and Evening Prayer includes the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary from Luke 1: 46-55. The Benedictus and Magnificat Antiphons are recited or chanted before and after these Canticles, IOW, twice each service. And feastdays have antiphons that talk about the feast being commemorated.)

This is even though, as is well known, the Latins came to emphasize Christ’s first revelation to non-Jews, the Magi, shortly after His birth, over all other aspects of the Jan. 6 feast. Also, the name Epiphany ‘stuck’ in the West as its official designation, from Greek meaning a manifestation, although it is also well-known in Spanish as Dia de los Reyes, the Day of the [Three] Kings, and in English as Little Christmas, the end of the twelve-day Christmas celebration of Christ’s Nativity which begins December 25. (Although in recent years some local Latin Churches have been allowed by Rome to move Epiphany to a nearby Sunday, for many it remains a huge feast on whatever day of the week it falls.)

The CE says Christians in Rome tended to go along with the local Solstice-time celebration of the Sun (god)’s birthday, and so their leaders decided to make it, for them, a celebration of the birth according to the flesh of the Sun of Justice, the Dawn from on high, the one and only Lord, Jesus Christ. And the idea spread East, although Orthodox services for Dec. 25 include both the Lord’s birth and the visit of the Magi. “Christmas” of course is the name for the Dec. 25 feast in English, meaning “Christ Mass” or Liturgy; similarly, churches or cathedrals dedicated to Christ and called “Christ Church” in the English-speaking world generally mark their patronal feastday on Christmas, and Greek men named Christos, their nameday. Many other languages continue to call it Nativity: Spanish Navidad, Italian Natale, etc. The main Greek word is Gennesis, which can mean begetting or birth (‘generation’), which – I could be corrected on this – I believe is why in Orthodoxy we often see it referred to in full as “the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ According to the Flesh,” to distinguish it from His begetting by God the Father from all eternity, even though I don’t believe the word nativity could ever be mistaken by English-speakers for anything other than His birth according to the flesh.

Meanwhile the East came to emphasize the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan among the older multiple Jan. 6 manifestations, and the name Theophany generally stuck, Greek for the revelation of God, although sometimes Orthodox call it Epiphany. The West came to mark a separate Feast of the Baptism of the Lord shortly after Jan. 6. Theophany is considered a huge feast in Orthodoxy, while the Lord’s Baptism is not, in Latinism, though as already noted, Epiphany in much of Latinism still is. This causes some confusion for Latins, who believe that for the Orthodox the Magi are extremely important, because Latins associate the Magi with Jan. 6, Orthodox Theophany. Ironically, if you don’t get to an Orthodox parish for the services held before the actual Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, the only Gospel you’ll hear at Nativity IS the Magi Gospel, since the birth narrative comes earlier in the day’s schedule of multiple services.

Speaking of holiday excess, as the CE notes – see under “Popular merry-making”! – it’s always been a complaint of some Christians about other Christians at this time of year, even in ancient times! One thing I didn’t know is that Latin Advent, the period currently set-off by the four Sundays before Dec. 25, used to have a fasting practice, though like the Orthodox Nativity Fast or Philipovka (because it starts November 15 after the feast of St. Philip the Apostle), not as strict as the Great Fast/Lent. Though in some times and places Advent began at the Fall Equinox, in September! And once, because of the 12 Days of Christmas’ partying getting out of hand, a further fast was imposed then! The thing is, Orthodox “feasting” is advised not to become a license for overindulgence and debauchery, enslavement to the passions we’ve just spent an entire season working to free ourselves more from. But Latin Advent now is limited to a liturgical season, with service prayers and readings emphasizing waiting for the Lord’s coming(s) into the world and people’s hearts and lives – much more developed in that sense than Orthodox practice, although Orthodox hymns in church occasionally evoke preparation for Nativity. Western Advent is a fall/winter Lent without the fasting. Orthodox sometimes call their fast the Advent Fast.

How Orthodox handle near and dear Heterodox “feasting” during their Advent is often an issue and a question, especially for recent converts to jurisdictions that try to maintain something of the traditional Orthodox Fast for the full 40 days, throughout U.S. Thanksgiving Day (for New Calendar Orthodox), workplace and organization (pre)Christmas parties, etc. But I recall that for thousands of years for most Christians and their forebears, that is, north of the Tropics, this period has fallen between Fall harvest and Spring planting, an agricultural down-time often used for extra cultural and social activities, including packing-on calories and body-fat together for the long, cold winter. “Old habits die hard!”

Then there’s the shopping-madness. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” says the Lord, according to St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. But of course, amid would-be recipients’ expressed demands, our pressure on ourselves in their regard, and the rage of traffic, parking lots, and store aisles, it doesn’t necessarily feel blessed in the preparation! Sorry, I don’t have any new solutions for that one!

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