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palmbeachpost: Jan. 6, not Dec. 25, is day to celebrate

By Steve Gushee, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, January 2, 2004

The feast of the Epiphany might be a positive alternative to the chaos and confusion of our overwhelmingly secular Christmas.

The church could abandon Dec. 25 to the winter holiday it has become and celebrate the birth of Jesus on Jan. 6, Tuesday this year.

The Armenians have done that since the fourth century. The Armenian Orthodox Church, however, has its own holiday complications.

As it stands now, the feast of the Epiphany officially closes the 12-day Christmas season in western Christianity even as it welcomes the three wise men who come to worship the child born in Bethlehem.

Those three Magi have more recently morphed into completely non-biblical Kings. Three Kings Day has become a hugely popular holiday among Hispanic Christians.

Using the Epiphany to highlight the biblical Magi is itself an innovation. Originally, the Epiphany (a Greek word that means manifestation) celebrated the baptism of Jesus, that event in which God made Jesus known as his chosen agent.

The early church was more concerned to identify Jesus’ vocation than to trumpet his birth. His baptism by John at about age 30 was a powerful biblical story that launched his public ministry.

That extraordinary event was comparable to Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the early church. Accordingly, the Epiphany joined Easter and Pentecost as the three most important feasts in the church year.

Christmas on Dec. 25 was a relative latecomer to the church’s calendar and became widely known only by the late fourth century.

Armenian Christians may have done it right. That tradition, among the very earliest Christian communities, refused to adopt Dec. 25 as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. The date was not biblical. No one knows when he was born. So the Armenians simply tacked Christmas onto the Epiphany and celebrated both on Jan 6.

As such, Armenian Christians don’t get caught up in the holiday madness that proceeds and denigrates the more solemn possibilities of Dec. 25 as a sacred day.

Still, Armenians have their problems. In Jerusalem, the church follows the old Julian calendar. That ancient dating is about 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar in use today. Therefore, Armenian Christmas in the holy land is actually Jan. 19.

In the best of all worlds, Christian groups might one day settle for a single date to celebrate Jesus’ birth and baptism.

Jan. 6 has ancient credentials to claim the honor.

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