In his description of the piety of Audrey of Ely, the Venerable Bede mentions that she didn’t bathe in hot water except in preparation for the three greater feasts of the year — Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany (Bede, HE IV:19). While it is no surprise that Easter and Pentecost were the primary feasts of the year, ranking Epiphany among the top three is a bit of a surprise.The Nativity and most of the other feasts of the year were celebrated in the 7th century, but apparently second rate compared to epiphany.
Today, Epiphany is the celebration of Christ’s manifestation to the gentiles — the three magi who coming bearing gifts. However in Bede’s time Epiphany was the celebration of the baptism of Christ. When the Holy Spirit utters the words “This is my beloved son with whom I’m well pleased” Christ is manifest to the world. From Bede’s homily on Epiphany we can see that the lectionary used at Wearmouth-Jarrow called for Matthew 3:13-17, the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.
If we turn to Bede’s homily on Epiphany we gain more insight into how Epiphany was viewed in his time.
“Now there follows: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Let it be [so] now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice’. … ‘Let me now,’ he says, let me now be baptized by you in water as I have ordered, and afterwards you will be baptized by me in the Spirit, as you are asking. So it is fitting that we give an example of all justice, [which is] to be fulfilled, namely, so that the faithful may learn that no human being can be perfectly just apart from the waters of baptism, and that the ceremony of life-giving regeneration is necessary for all, no matter how innocently and justly that they may live, when they recognize that although I was conceived and born by the working of the Holy Spirit, I was subject to a second birth, or rather that I consecrated the bath of baptism for them. None of the more important people should scorn to be baptized in the forgiveness of sins by my humble ones, when they remember that the Lord, who was wont to forgive sins as he baptized in the Holy Spirit, lowered his head to be baptized in water at the hands of his servant.’ ” (Martin and Hurst, p. 115-116)
The editor is indicating that all of this is quoted form somewhere else but doesn’t say where. The editors suggest that he is quoting Jerome in part, but not all of it. Where ever it comes from, probably part Bede and part quoted, it does suggest that the baptism was considered second nativity and perhaps more important than the first.
Bede then goes on to make an interesting link to the relationship between Christ and Adam, Adam being expelled with his wife, and eventually to Christ taking the church as his wife.
“The second Adam on this day points out that through the waters of the bath of rebirth the flickering flame by which the cherub guardian blocked the entry into paradise when the first Adam was expelled would be extinguished. Where the one went out with his wife, having been conquored by the enemy, there the other might return with his spouse (namely the Church of the saints), as a conqueror over his enemy. Further, the Father of the age to come, the Prince of peace, might grand to those redeemed from sin the better gift of immortal life, which the father of this present age, the prince of discord, lost after he was sold, together with his descendants, into the slavery of sin.” (Martin and Hurst, pm 116-117)
“Now what sort of flaming sword it is guarding the doorway to paradise has been extinguished for each of the faithful at the font of baptism, and it has been put away so that they may return. For the unfaithful, however, it remains always immovable, and also for those falsely called faithful thought they have not been chosen, since they have no fear of entangling themselves in sins after baptism, it is as though the same fire has been rekindled after it has been extinguished, so they they may not merit to enter the kingdom that they try to obtain with a deceitful and duplicitous heart — with the fraudulent tooth of a serpent rather than the simple eye of the dove, which the Lord shows that he loves very much his Church when he says in the song of love, ‘Behold, you are beautiful, my friend, behold you are beautiful. Your eyes are those of doves.’ (Sg. 1:15)” (Martin and Hurst, p. 120)
Bede goes on to quote the Song of Songs three more times, amid the seven examples of virtues of the dove. All of this fits well with what Bede writes of St. Audrey. First bathing being tied to the feast of Christ’s baptism. Second, to the imagery of Audrey as a bride (and mother) of Christ. The use of the song of songs is recalled in Bede’s hymn on Audrey, even if it is not quoted.
So today, Pentecost, is one of the three primary feasts in Anglo-Saxon times and certainly a major feast today. Pentecost is the celebration of the birthday of the church, recorded in Acts, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, Mary his mother, and the others in the upper room. I hope you were able to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, or Whitsun, with your church family. I wonder how many sermons today discuss the confluence of the birth of the church with Mother’s day.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Lawrence Martin and David Hurst, eds. Bede the Venerable Homilies on the Gospels: Book One Advent to Lent, Cistercian Publications, 1991.