Sermon for the Epiphany, 6th January 2010 — 2 Comments

  1. I had never thought about why it was 6th January! In primary school we were told that the gap was to emphasise the fact that Jesus was about two before the Magi arrived, but why 6th and not some other date?

    I dug out my 1930s copy of ‘Liturgy and Worship’ by Lowther-Clarke et al, and got the following:

    “Christmas and Epiphany. These are the two characteristic feasts of the Incarnation, in West and East. The dates go back to immemorial antiquity. Dec. 25 was significant as the winter solstice. It was celebrated as the birthday of Mithras and of Sol Invictus. In the form of the feast Kikellia it can be traced at Alexandria back to 239 B.C. A parallel festival at Alexandria on January 6 celebrated the birthday of Osiris. Two thousand years before Christ a reformed Calendar was introduced; at chat time the winter solstice fell on January 6 of the Julian Calendar. By the fourth century B.C., owing to the inaccuracy of the Calendar, the solstice was on December 25. It is thought that a Hellenistic festival may have been introduced soon after the founding of Alexandria, by the side of the national Egyptian festival which adhered to the traditional date. The feast of the Dedication (I Macc. iv. 56; John x. 22) was on Chislev (approx­imately December 25). The winter solstice was therefore marked out by immemorial usage as appropriate for a religious feast.

    The earliest evidence for Epiphany is in Clement of Alexandria, who tells us (Strom., i. 2 I) that the followers of Basilides spent the night of January 5/6 as a vigil and the day itself as a festival of our Lord’s baptism. This fits in with the conception of Baptism as illumination, and with the pagan celebration of the day as the birthday of a god. By about 300 Epiphany had established itself among the orthodox of the East. It was the festival both of the birth and of the baptism of our Lord, as Cassian tells us. The traditional association of the day with the marriage feast at Cana may be connected with the feast of Dionysus, identified with Osiris and also with Aeon, on January 5/6, our Lord being thought of as giving the true wine in contrast with the falsehoods of paganism.

    Epiphany reached the West in the second half of the fourth century, perhaps appearing in Gaul first. Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century says it is observed throughout the world, except by the Donatists. For a time at Rome it seems to have competed with December 25 for the place of honour. The difficulty was solved by making January 6 pre-eminently a commemoration of the visit of the Magi, a peculiarly Western meaning of the feast”.

    So 6th January seems to be about supplanting Osiris!

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