The church season of Epiphany

The Festival of Epiphany is the second-oldest festival of the Christian church (only Easter is an older observance). It is always January 6th and marks the start of the next season of the church year (thus the “Twelve Days of Christmas” 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.” During Jesus’ earthly life, he gave us an epiphany of God’s true identity—his nature, character, and love. If Christmas celebrates the fact that the Father gave his only-begotten Son to the world, then Epiphany is the unwrapping of this gift.

This season of our Savior’s appearance is bracketed by two occasions that reveal who Jesus is: The Baptism of our Lord (on January 13) and his Transfiguration (March 3). On those two occasions, the voice of God the Father declared what Jesus’ human flesh had hidden from the world: “This is my Son!” While Christmas brings us face-to-face with Jesus as fully human, the Sundays in Epiphany leave little doubt that we are looking at Jesus who is fully divine.

At the same time, the readings for the Sundays in Epiphany present us with a real conundrum. Jesus hid the manifestations of his deity, so that his glory remained a secret and a mystery, even while he was revealing it to those he called. Today we have been called to see Jesus as the Light of the World and as true God. The themes of light and revelation to the nations are dominant during the season of Epiphany.

Originally, Epiphany celebrated four different events, all on one day: the birth of Jesus, his Baptism, his first miracle, 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.