January 6 – Theophany and Epiphany

Icon of the Baptism of ChristJanuary 6 was the original date for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in the Christian East[1], until it was supplanted by December 25 sometime later, primarily due to pressure from the one-two punch of John Chrysostom and the retail sector.

Nowadays January 6 is (in the East) Theophany and commemorates the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John the (wait for it) Baptist (also called the Forerunner). The Church recognizes this event as the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity, featuring Jesus in the role of baptisand, God the Father as the bodiless voice (uncredited), and the Holy Spirit as the dove.

On this day all over the world Orthodox priests perform the “great blessing of the waters.” In warmer climes, the priest will throw a crucifix far out into the water, and the parish youth swim out and retrieve it. Any resemblance this ritual has to people throwing sticks into the water for their dogs to retrieve is, according to most ancient sources, purely coincidental. In colder climes the ritual involves a good deal less swimming, although some brave Russians have been known to chop holes in the ice for a dip. Historians say that in nineteenth century Russia, one could obtain over 100 different flavors of vodka. Historians say nothing to deny a correlation between these two facts.

In pre-Revolution Russia, Theophany marked the beginning of “The Season,” a time of merriment and jollity between Theophany and Lent, which often featured parties at which you might find 100 flavors of vodka, if you were lucky enough to know somebody who threw that kind of party. Lesser souls had to make do with one flavor, or two if that year’s potato crop had been especially robust[2].

The ceremony of “the lesser blessing of the waters” involves making up a batch of holy water for use throughout the year, such as the annual blessing of homes, in which the priest goes throughout the home splashing holy water on everything while the family sings the troparion of the feast. In Russia, this is sung to a tune remarkably similar to the Tsarist Hymn, made famous in the west by Tchaikovsky as the intro to his “1812 Overture.” Most families these days, however, make do with considerably fewer violins (and no canons).

Painting titled The Epiphany by Giotto di Bondone circa 1325In the west, today is Epiphany and commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men as recorded in Matthew. According to the gospel, the wise men or magi (Greek for maguses) visited King Herod to learn where the baby king was to be born, making them the last men in recorded history to stop and ask for directions. As is told during the Christmas season ad nauseam by people who like showing off the sort of hardly-obscure knowledge that 65% of their listeners[3] already know, Matthew does not say how many wise men there actually were. Tradition has fixed on three because, well, it’s a magic number, and besides, that’s how many gifts are mentioned. After their audience with Herod they of course go on to find the Christ child, and present him with the three aforementioned (not “three or four mentioned”) gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As is widely known, they then have a dream telling them to give Herod the slip, and they do. The aftermath of this is dealt with on December 28, q.v.

Traditionally on this day a Catholic priest blesses water, frankincense, gold, and chalk, the latter being used to write the letters “CMB” above parishioners’ doorways. This either stands for the initials of the three wise men (Curly, Moe, and Balthasar), or Christus Mansionem Benedictat, or, “May Christ bless this house [with poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce][4].” Astute readers will note the third biblical gift, myrrh, has been replaced with chalk, perhaps because initials written on lintels with perfume, while pleasing to the nose, quickly dry out and become illegible.


[1] As it still is in the Armenian Church.
[2] Yes, I know not all vodka is made from potatoes. Please don’t email me about this.
[3] This is an estimate. I really don’t know the exact percent.
[4] Get it? Eggs Benedict?