St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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About the importance of Theophany and the Nativity

Some of you may wonder why Theophany has always been more important than Christmas in Orthodoxy.
Ultimately, the reason for celebrating both festivals is not historical but theological; namely, to affirm the appearance of God in human form. The apologetic reason for the celebrations was to oppose the Gnostic belief that Jesus only appeared to be human and was, in fact, a sort of demi-god. As my church history professor was fond of saying, in early Gentile Christianity the issue was not belief in Jesus’ divinity, but believing in his humanity.
In three of the great episcopal Sees – Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople – the Birth and Baptism of Christ were a unified festival, celebrated on January 5/6, with baptism the more important of the two, to which Christmas was, so to speak, an afterthought. This celebration is known by the end of the 4th Century and dated in Constantinople and Antioch around 380. St John Chrysostom’s famous sermon for the Nativity dates from 386.
At the liturgy for Christmas Day, we sing “As many as have been baptized into Christ,” not the customary Trisagion. The Great Church at Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, dominated Eastern liturgical practice; since the service of Birth and Baptism was unified, the singing of the baptismal hymn made perfect sense liturgically.
At Jerusalem, the Birth of Christ was celebrated on the 6th January. The period of celebration concluded at the Feast of the Presentation, commemorated on 14 February, the 40th day after the Epiphany (the Presentation, called “The Meeting” in Eastern Churches, is now commemorated on the 2nd). The Vigil service was celebrated on the 5th January at Bethlehem, where the angels appeared to announce the Nativity. All this is attested in the Pilgrimage of Egeria, a nun who traveled to Jerusalem in the mid-4th C. and kept a diary of her experiences.
The Royal Hours originated in Jerusalem in the 4th Century. If you examine the texts, some of the liturgical hymnody is attributed to Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Royal Hours later migrated to Constantinople, from whence they migrated still farther to the Kievan Patriarchate in the 11th Century.
In the earliest Eastern records, then, Christmas was never celebrated on December 25th. That date is of Roman origin and stems from the end of the 3rd Century.
The Eastern Churches adopted the December 25th date late. It was introduced as a liturgical experiment at Jerusalem in the mid- 5th Century. It did not succeed at first. Not until the reign of Emperor Justinian (mid 6th Century) was it firmly established at Constantinople and, thence, throughout the Eastern Churches as a whole. Only then did the Birth and the Baptism become separate commemorations. Jerusalem celebrated the Baptism to the 6th January and accepted the Nativity on 25th December to conform with the rest of the Eastern Church.
In line with Roman practice, the Baptism of Christ was never commemorated in the West. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi. It was not until mid-20th Century that the Baptism was instituted as the first Sunday after Epiphany. Obviously, the Nativity has dominated western practice. This history shows why Theophany was always more important in the East than the Nativity, and vice versa in the West.
Parenthetically, the January 7th celebration of the Nativity in many Orthodox Churches (including most of our Ukrainian Church) is simply the date of December 25th in the old Julian calendar. This is not related to the historical date on the 6th, mentioned above.

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