Welcome Father Sotirios P. Malamis, who helps us to understand Epiphany, also known as Theophany — it’s meaning, why we celebrate it and more, to help us to gain a greater appreciation for our Faith.
Lessons in the Faith
For the majority of Orthodox Christians, Christmas and Epiphany are thought to be two separate major feasts of our Church that reveal the greatness of the Christian Faith. Did you know that these two feasts used to be one? Did you know that our church also recognizes the 12 days of Christmas? These facts are not simply tidbits to knowing more about the history of our Church; in fact, they assist us in growing a greater appreciation for our Faith as well as understanding why we celebrate the same feasts each year.
History of Theophany
Since as early as the second century, Orthodox Christians have celebrated the great feast of Theophany on the 6th of January. This feast is also known as Epiphany, from the Greek επιφάνεια, which means “manifestation from above” or “divine revelation.” Originally, Epiphany commemorated the baptism of Christ, as well as His birth.
St. John Chrysostom explains the reasons for this:
“Why is not the day on which Christ was born called Epiphany, but the day on which He was baptized? Because He was not manifested to all when He was born, but when He was baptized” (Homily 24 On the Baptism of Christ).
In some places, the feast of Epiphany included not only the Birth, but also other events from the life of Christ (e.g. Christ’s first miracle at Cana).
Theophany celebration separated from Christmas
It was not until the fourth century that the Birth of Christ began to be celebrated as a separate feast on December 25. This left Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, focused solely on Christ’s baptism. The establishment of Christmas, however, did not diminish the importance of Epiphany. It is celebrated from the 2nd to the 14th of January. There are four days preceding the central day of the feast known as the fore-feast (προεόρτια) and the eight days after the feast (μεθεόρτια). The after-feast includes the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist (January 7th) as well as the Sunday after Epiphany.
Meaning revealed in the hymns
As in all major feasts of our Orthodox Church, the powerful meaning of the feast is revealed within the hymns that are chanted as well as the biblical readings of the day.
One characteristic hymn that summarizes this feast concisely is the Kontakion:
“You have manifested yourself today to the whole world and Your Light, O Lord was shown upon us, who praise You with understanding: You have come and manifested Yourself as Light Unapproachable.”
When approaching this feast with the proper faith and mindset, we witness that this event is one of divine enlightenment and illumination.
Sanctification of the Waters
One would be remiss not to mention the Great Sanctification of waters, which takes place on the eve and on the day of Epiphany. The waters being sanctified remind us of Christ’s baptism as well as our baptism, which is a gift of sanctification for all. At the same time, the blessed waters of Epiphany are a great blessing that is treasured immensely by Orthodox Christians who use it to renew (re-consecrate) themselves and everything surrounding us. We are told in stories from Greece that on this great day everything was sanctified with the waters of Epiphany and this was considered a holy tradition.
Christian celebration of the 12 days of Christmas
Is there some truth to the Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Although various stories have come about with this traditional Christmas song, we as Orthodox Christians respect and honor that the connection between the Birth of Christ and Epiphany are strong within this twelve-day period.
The main focus of the hymns and scriptural readings during the twelve days from December 25th to January 5th — with the exception of January 1st which is the feast day of St. Basil the Great and the Circumcision of our Lord — is the Birth of Christ and Epiphany. It is also the only time in the Church’s liturgical year where we experience a fast-free period. A strict fast is called for on January 5th as preparation for the major feast of Theophany.
As we begin to celebrate the twelve days of Christmas/Epiphany, our Church as a loving mother calls us to put aside the secular way of celebration and embrace these holy days with the goal to move our lives to be closer to God, our Creator. Hence, these feasts are really celebrated only when they are associated with the life of the Church; outside of the Church no one can understand their true meaning.
We can see to it that this year’s celebration of Christ coming into the world brings us closer to living spiritual lives, rather than simply earthly lives. The spiritual life, sealed with worshipping within our Church, will give us light and help us remain above the secularization of the world, which desires for us to “celebrate” Christmas without Christ. Let us celebrate with Him by offering Him glory, as did the shepherds, praise Him with the angels, and dance with the archangels. Such a festive atmosphere of Christmas will be a communal celebration between heaven and earth.
Have a blessed Christmas, and a happy and peaceful New Year!
Reverend Father Sotirios P. Malamis is Proistamenos of The Ascension of Our Lord Greek Orthodox Church in Linconshire, IL. He is the 8th of 9 children of Reverend Father Panagiotis K. and Presvytera Theodora Malamis. Father Sotirios earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from DePaul University. In 2001, he earned a Masters of DIvinity with High Distinction from Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA. He continued his theological studies at the University of Athens in the field of Pastoral Theology and Religious Education. While in Athens, Fr. Sotirios continued to pursue a teaching degree in Byzantine Music, and now also teaches throughout the Chicagoland area. Prior to his assignment to the community of the Ascension in 2014, he served Holy Trinity Church in Chicago and as spiritual advisor for the Hellenic American Academy for 6 years; and served one year as Associate Pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines, IL. Father Sotiros and Presvytera Stefanie have two children.