Coptic heritage: The feast of the Epiphany

Gamal Nkrumah , Tuesday 19 Jan 2021

The feast of the Epiphany, falling on 19 January, is one of the most sacred days in the Coptic Christian calendar

the Epiphany
Icon of the feast of the Epiphany (Photo: St. Mary & St. George Coptic Orthodox Church)

In the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, 19 January is a hallowed day, the feast of the Epiphany. I can still remember my grandmother Mounira telling her grandchildren memorable stories of the life of Coptic Christians in days bygone.

She was a natural and spontaneous storyteller, and the story of the Epiphany was one of the stories she used to tell. The Copts, according to Mounira, believe that Epiphany invariably falls on the coldest day of the year and it likewise is unfailingly drizzly.

At Epiphany many Copts used to flock to the Nile to immerse themselves in its cleansing waters at dawn. The freezing and shuddering peasants celebrated Epiphany in an arcane and mystical manner. The men revered the ceremony, and in a separate stretch of the river the women revelled in the venerable day.

Today, with the exception of remote rural enclaves this ancient ceremony has largely ceased. In urban settings, the spectacle would be unacceptable. Instead, the spiritual essence of Epiphany, the purification by the Holy Ghost and the submersion in the Spirit, predominates.

Epiphany is inextricably intertwined with water and with the baptism of Jesus Christ. “All of us who desire the kingdom of God are, by the Lord’s decree, under an equal and rigorous necessity of seeking after the grace of baptism,” declared St Basil. Epiphany among the Copts does not fall on the same day as for Christians in the West. The Western date of 6 January in the Julian calendar corresponds to 19 January in the Gregorian calendar.

Epiphany, however, is still associated with ritual bathing and cleansing. “God sometimes takes us into troubled waters not to drown us but to cleanse us,” one Coptic priest, Father Bishoi, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Hence, Copts all over Egypt would once have headed for the waters of the River Nile in January, which roughly coincides with the traditional Coptic month of Kiahk. The name is derived from Ka Ha Ka, or “Good of Good”, a name of the ancient Egyptian sacred Apis Bull. Kiahk is the fourth month of the Coptic calendar and lies between 10 December and 8 January in the Gregorian calendar.

Epiphany is also the day on which the Christmas season ends and the Copts break their fast. Decorations are taken down from houses. Coptic Christians traditionally eat qolqass, or Egyptian potatoes, on Epiphany, a root crop eaten with a rich leafy soup. The meat broth is cooked with collard greens, and beef, mutton or lamb.

Al-Maghtas, baptism, or immersion in Arabic, is also the name of a place on the eastern bank of the River Jordan and the earliest place of worship in Christianity. Epiphany in the Eastern Churches commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ at this spot, with many seeking to emulate this each year during the feast.

The baptism of Jesus Christ took place by John the Baptist. Originally it was celebrated on Epiphany, which in the Western Churches typically commemorates the coming of the Magi.

“The feast of the baptism of the Lord is one of the seven major feasts of the Coptic Orthodox Church,” another Coptic priest, Father Antonios, told the Weekly. Even today, the Eastern Christian feast of the Theophany, celebrated on 6 January as a counterpart to the Western Christian feast of Epiphany, focuses primarily on the baptism of the Lord as the revelation of God to man.

In the Western churches, the nativity of Christ, or Christmas, falls on 25 December. The Coptic Orthodox Church, which belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of Churches, celebrates Christmas on 7 January, something which has been the case since the religious schism following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.

In Roman Catholicism, the baptism of Jesus is one of the Luminous Mysteries sometimes added to the Rosary. In Coptic Christianity, it is a Trinitarian feast, in reference to the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of Christianity.

For mediaeval Christians, the baptism of Jesus Christ was a sacrament. His flesh blessed the water, and the descent of the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. The biblical gospels are not the only references to the baptisms performed by John, and in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Peter refers to how the ministry of Jesus followed “the baptism which John preached”.

Even if water is the symbolic manifestation of the Epiphany to Coptic Christians, the dove, too, is an emblem of the divine. Depictions of the baptismal scene thus typically portray the heavens opening and the Holy Spirit descending in the shape of a dove towards Jesus.

The gospel of Luke is explicit about the spirit of God, or the Holy Ghost, descending in the shape of a dove. The wording of Matthew is vague enough that it can be interpreted only to suggest that the descent was in the style of a dove. Although a variety of symbolisms were attached to doves at the time these passages were written, the dove imagery has become a symbol for the Holy Spirit in Christian art.

The Spirit descending like a dove is often interpreted as the moment when an individual feels that he or she fully understands spiritual principles, or has become conscious of something very important.

In the biblical gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke the depiction of baptism is presented in parallel passages. The accounts of Luke and Mark record a voice as addressing Jesus by saying “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, while in Matthew the voice addresses the crowd, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

St John’s Gospel is unique in that it is the only one which records that baptism was an important part of Jesus’s public ministry. In John 3:22, the author records that Jesus “baptised” a large number of people, so much so that his ministry of baptism began to eclipse the ministry of John the Baptist.

Water and the Holy Spirit are the motifs or central themes of Epiphany in the New Testament and so are they too in Coptic Christianity.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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