The church season of Epiphany

Epiphany is the second oldest festival of the Christian church year. Only the Easter season is older. The Festival of Epiphany is always January 6th and marks the start of the next church year season (thus the 12 days of the Christmas season end on 1/5).

The word ‘epiphany’ is a Greek word meaning ‘to reveal.’ In a conversation today we might say, “I’ve had an epiphany,” meaning, “I’ve had a sudden insight or revelation.” The season of Epiphany reveals Jesus as the Light of the World and as true God, and so it is sometimes also called the Feast of Lights or the Theophany (the revelation of God—‘theos’ = God, ‘phany’ = to show). The themes of light and revelation to the nations are dominant during the season of Epiphany.

The readings during the Epiphany season carry forward the emphasis in the readings for Christmas—Jesus reveals himself to us as God and Savior. At the same time the readings present us with a real conundrum. Jesus hides the manifestations of his deity, so that his glory remains a secret and a mystery, even while he is revealing it. He shows his hidden glory to those he calls. In Christmas and Epiphany our attention is on getting to know Jesus—who he is and how he works.

Originally, Epiphany celebrated four different events: the Baptism of Jesus, his first miracle (changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana), his birth, and the visit of the Wise Men. Each of these is a revelation of God to humanity.

Eventually, the celebration of Christ’s birth was separated out and became Christmas, twelve days earlier, so that the season of Christmas began with the revelation of Christ to Israel (represented by the shepherds at Bethlehem) and ended with the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles (represented by the Wise Men). Epiphany is therefore sometimes called “The Gentiles’ Christmas.”

Over the centuries, the other two celebrations were also separated. The celebration of Jesus’ Baptism moved to the first Sunday after Epiphany and the commemoration of his miracle at the wedding at Cana moved to the second Sunday after Epiphany.

In England and her colonies (including America), the custom has been to give gifts on Christmas Day. But in most of the rest of European, Mediterranean, and Latin American countries, Christians exchange gifts on Epiphany—the day on which the Wise Men brought their gifts to the Christ Child. The day is often called “Three Kings’ Day” and is a public holiday in a great number of countries.

In many Latin American countries, children write letters to the Wise Men, not Santa Claus, telling them what gifts they want. In Czechia and Slovakia, children dress as the three kings and go caroling and are rewarded with cookies. Children in Spain fill their shoes with straw for the three kings’ horses to eat and put them out on Epiphany Eve. The next morning they find candy and gifts in their place. Some countries have combined the gift-giving on both Christmas and Epiphany, often with smaller gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas in between.

Detail from Giovanni Della Robbi’s “Predella of the Last Judgment” (1501) at the Church of San Girolamo at Volterra, Tuscany.

Detail from Giovanni Della Robbi’s “Predella of the Last Judgment” (1501) at the Church of San Girolamo at Volterra, Tuscany.