Falling on January 6, Epiphany is a Christian feast that celebrates the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. In Greek, the word “epiphany” means “manifestation” and in Eastern Christian tradition the event is called “Theophany,” which means “manifestation of God.” In the Eastern tradition, it falls on January 19. Roman Catholics will often celebrate it on the Sunday closest to January 6.
The Western observance commemorates the visitation of the biblical Magi to the child Jesus, stressing the appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles. In many Hispanic and European churches, it is also known as Three Kings Day. Eastern Christians include the baptism of Jesus in their celebration, highlighting Christ’s revelation to the world as the Son of God.
Marking the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany brings to an end the Advent and Christmas seasons. The day begins an extended period of “Ordinary Time” in the Christian year that focuses on the mission of the church in the world to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. It is also a time of focusing on Christian unity and fellowship across ethnic and racial lines.
Originating in Eastern Christian churches, the earliest reference to the feast is found in 361 CE in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (ca. 330-395 CE). In a sermon delivered on December 25, 380, Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 CE) referred to the day “the Theophany” and explained how in the coming weeks the church would be celebrating “the holy nativity of Christ.” On January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons, declaring that the celebration of the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Magi had already taken place and now Christ’s baptism would be recognized.
Originally, the day was part of the Christmas celebrations of the nativity, but by 534 CE, the Western church had separated it as a commemoration of the coming of the Magi. The Eastern church continued to celebrate January 6 as a composite feast for some time, but eventually reserved January 6 as a commemoration of the baptism of Jesus.
The colors of Epiphany are usually the colors of Christmas, white and gold. Epiphany liturgies stress the universal mission of Jesus Christ and his church to all peoples throughout the whole world.
While Anglicans and Lutherans observe Epiphany, most Protestant churches ignore it and collapse into Christmas their discussion of the visit of the Magi and the related custom of giving gifts. In the last generation, with the spread of the acknowledgment of the liturgical year among some of the large Protestant groups (Methodists, Presbyterians), some notice of Epiphany has emerged.
Epiphany is the reference for the popular Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Christmas; Eastern Orthodoxy; Liturgical Year; Roman Catholic Church.
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