Epiphany Definition and Summary

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ is one of the oldest Christian feasts, though, throughout the centuries, it has celebrated a variety of things. Epiphany comes from a Greek verb meaning "to reveal," and all of the various events celebrated by the Feast of the Epiphany are revelations of Christ to man.

The Epiphany, called Theophany in Eastern Churches, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and the visit of the Wise Men. Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6th, although in the United States, it is transferred to a Sunday.

Liturgical Color(s):

White
 

Time of the Year:

January 6

 

Type of Holiday:

SolemnityHoly Day of Obligation

 

Duration:

One Day (or an entire octave in older custom)
 

Symbol:

Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; Visit of the Magi (West); Christ's baptism (East)

Alternate Names:

Theophany, Holy Lights, King's Feast

 

Reading:

 Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12 

Scriptural References:

Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 3:13-17
   

Introduction

Officially called "The Epiphany of the Lord," this feast celebrates the epiphany (manifestation) of Christ to the Gentiles, symbolized by Christ's being revealed to the Magi (Wise Men). The feast originally was more closely connected to Jesus' baptism, the primary theme of the feast in Eastern Churches to this day. In addition, other manifestations of Christ were often commemorated during Epiphany, including the miracle at the wedding at Cana.

In fact, some theologians throughout history have asserted that the Baptism of the Lord, the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Magi, and the miracle at Cana all historically occurred on January 6 (see Abbot Gueranger's works). This is unlikely, but either way, the Epiphany solemnity is celebrated on January 6, which falls within Christmastide. In some Catholic regions, the feast is translated to a Sunday. The Eastern Churches often call the holiday Theophany, which means "manifestation of God." Eastern Christians also refer to the Epiphany as "Holy Lights" because they baptize on this day, and baptism brings about illumination. Traditionally, Epiphany marked the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The story of the Magi traveling from the East to see the Christ child appears only in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The word Magi, in Greek magoi, comes from the Latin word meaning "sage." These particular sages were possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia. Upon seeing a star rising in the East (the Star of Bethlehem), they realized it was a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107), the star shone with an inexpressible brilliance, and the sun, moon, and other stars all formed a chorus around the special star (Letter to the Ephesians, 19). The wise men followed the star to Bethlehem of Judea, and to Jesus' dwelling there. Having arrived, they worshipped the infant Jesus, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There have been numerous traditions that have grown up about the Wise Men. Typically we think of there being three wise men because of the number of gifts, but Matthew doesn't tell us the exact number. Since the 3rd century, Christian writers have referred to them as kings, even though Matthew doesn't specifically tell us that they were royalty. Their names in the West, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar date to the 6th century. The names mean: Master-of-Treasure, King, and Protect-the-King, respectively. The Syrian Church has given them the following Persian names: Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph.

St. Bede the Venerable fills in a few gaps, providing colorful details about the Magi:

The first was called Melchior. He was an old man, with white hair and a long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his King. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was middle-aged and called Balthasar. The myrrh he held in his hand prefigured the death of the son of Man (see The Catholic Source Book).

St. Bede hints that the magi represent different races, an idea that was further developed around the 14th century, in which the wise men were said to represent the three known races of the time, European, Asian, and African. According to another legend, St. Thomas the Apostle visited the Magi, and after catechizing them, he initiated them into the Christian faith. Eventually the Wise Men were ordained priests and then bishops. Near the end of their lives, the Christmas Star revisited them, this time bringing them together for a final reunion. The information provided by Bede, and this legend, are interesting but historically unreliable.

Epiphany: A Fourfold Feast

Epiphany originally celebrated four different events, in the following order of importance: the Baptism of the Lord; Christ's first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana; the Nativity of Christ; and the visitation of the Wise Men or Magi. Each of these is a revelation of God to man: At Christ's Baptism, the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God the Father is heard, declaring that Jesus is His Son; at the wedding in Cana, the miracle reveals Christ's divinity; at the Nativity, the angels bear witness to Christ, and the shepherds, representing the people of Israel, bow down before Him; and at the visitation of the Magi, Christ's divinity is revealed to the Gentiles—the other nations of the earth

 

The End of Christmastide

Eventually, the celebration of the Nativity was separated out, in the West, into Christmas; and shortly thereafter, Western Christians adopted the Eastern feast of the Epiphany, still celebrating the Baptism, the first miracle, and the visit from the Wise Men. Thus, Epiphany came to mark the end of Christmastide—the Twelve Days of Christmas (celebrated in the song), which began with the revelation of Christ to Israel in His Birth and ended with the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles at Epiphany.

Over the centuries, the various celebrations were further separated in the West, and now the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6, and the wedding at Cana is commemorated on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord.

 

Epiphany Customs

In many parts of Europe, the celebration of Epiphany is at least as important as the celebration of Christmas. While in England and her historical colonies, the custom has long been to give gifts on Christmas Day itself, in Italy and other Mediterranean countries, Christians exchange gifts on Epiphany—the day on which the Wise Men brought their gifts to the Christ Child. 

In Northern Europe, the two traditions have often been combined, with gift-giving on both Christmas and Epiphany (often with smaller gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas in between). (In the past, though, the main gift-giving day in both Northern and Eastern Europe was usually the feast of Saint Nicholas.) And in the United States in recent years, some Catholics have tried to revive the fullness of Christmastide. Our family, for instance, opens gifts "from Santa" on Christmas Day, and then, on each of the 12 days of Christmas, the children receive one small gift, before we open all of our gifts to one another on Epiphany (after attending Mass for the feast).

History

Like many of the most ancient Christian feasts, Epiphany was first celebrated in the East, where it has been held from the beginning almost universally on January 6. Today, among both Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the feast is known as Theophany—the revelation of God to man.

Epiphany is an ancient feast, dating to the 3rd century in the East. In the East, the Epiphany feast pre-dates the Christmas feast, although the West knew of the Nativity Feast before the Epiphany feast. Originally the Epiphany celebrated the Baptism of Christ. The birth of Christ was often tied to the Epiphany. The Church in Jerusalem celebrated Christ's Nativity on January 6 until AD 549. St. Epiphanius (d. AD 403) also lists the Epiphany as the date of the celebration of Christ's birth. However, the Apostolic Constitutions (c AD 380) mandates the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25th, and his Epiphany on January 6 (see Book V:III:XIII). In the Armenian Church today, January 6 is the only day celebrating Christ's Incarnation. The Epiphany feast was introduced in the Western Church by the 4th century, but the connection between the feast and Christ's baptism was gradually lost. The Western observance of the feast soon became associated with the visit of the Wise Men. In the West, the Feast of Jesus' baptism is a separate holy day, and currently falls on the Sunday following Epiphany. In the East, the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany gradually became two distinct feasts.

Various customs have developed around Epiphany. In the East, there is a solemn blessing of water. In the West, in the Middle Ages, houses were blessed on Epiphany. Holy water was sprinkled in each room. The whole family was involved. The father led the procession with a shovel of charcoal on which he burned incense and the oldest son had the bowl of holy water. The rest of the family followed along saying the rosary and/or singing hymns. While the father and oldest son were incensing and blessing the house, the youngest child carried a plate of chalk. The chalk had been blessed with a special blessing after morning Mass. The father took the blessed chalk and wrote over every room that led outside: 20 + C + M + B + 08 which stands for "Anno Domini 2008 -- Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar" and means "The three Holy Kings, Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, in the year of Our Lord, 2008" or whatever the year may be. The letters C, M, and B are also thought to stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning "Christ bless this home." This tradition of blessing the doorways symbolizes the family's commitment to welcome Christ into their homes on a daily basis through the year.

Today many Christians celebrate Epiphany, including Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists. However, many Christians have yet to be introduced to the Epiphany feast, as it falls in the empty space between Christmas and Easter that exists in many non-Catholic churches.

Traditions, Customs, Symbols and Typology

Traditions and Customs

Blessing Homes/Rooms with Holy Water
Blessing of Doorways (See Above)

Symbols

Three Crowns
Wise Men
Three Gifts
Five-Pointed Star

Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing All Souls Day

Queen of Sheba Visiting Solomon
Abner's Visit to David at Hebron
Joseph's Brothers Bowing Before Him
Three Strong Men Bringing David Water

 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the Significance of the Gifts of the Magi?

The gifts of the wise men are symbolic of who Jesus is, and what he did and taught. Gold symbolizes that Jesus is king, since precious metals were often given as gifts to royalty. Myrrh is symbolic of the sacrificial death of Jesus, since it was one of the burial spices used on Jesus' body. As a medicinal agent, it also symbolizes that Jesus is a healer, and healing was a major component of his adult ministry. Frankincense, i.e. incense, symbolizes Jesus' role as priest, since ancient Jews and Greeks believed that incense, used in worship, carried prayers to heaven. St. Irenaeus (180 AD) describes the symbolism in a similar fashion, although he connects frankincense to Jesus' divinity:

[The Magi] showed, by these gifts which they offered, who it was that was worshiped; myrrh, because it was He who should die and be buried for the mortal human race; gold, because He was a King, "of whose kingdom is no end;" and frankincense, because He was God, who also "was made known in Judea," and was "declared to those who sought Him not" (Against Heresies III:9:2).

Prayer:
Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ (from the Mass of St. Pius V): "O God, Who by the guidance of a star didst this day reveal Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we, who know Thee now by faith, may be so led as to behold with our eyes the beauty of Thy majesty. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen."


 

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