Celebrating the Epiphany

Epiphany (Koine Greek: ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, “manifestation”, “striking appearance”) or Theophany (Ancient Greek (ἡ) Θεοφάνεια, Theophaneai meaning “vision of God”), which traditionally falls on January 6, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human in the form of Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the infant Jesus, and thus Jesus’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, seen as his manifestation to the world as God’s son. 

Eastern churches following the Julian Calendar observe the Theophany feast on what for most countries is January 19 because of the 13-day difference today between that calendar and the generally used Gregorian calendar. 

Since 1970, the date of the celebration by Latin Rite Roman Catholics is fixed as January 6 only in countries where the feast is a Holy Day of Obligation, while in other countries it falls on the Sunday after January 1. In the Church of England,  also, the feast may be celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and 8 inclusive.

A separate celebration of the Baptism of the Lord  was introduced for Latin Rite Roman Catholics in 1955. Initially, this was to be held on January 13, previously the octave day of the Epiphany, but in the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar the date was changed to the first Sunday after January 6. In countries where in a particular year the Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the following Monday. In the Church of England, the same custom may be followed. In the Episcopal Church in the United States, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is always the Sunday after January 6.

Christians fixed the date of the feast on January 6 quite early in their history. Ancient liturgies noted Illuminatio, Manifestatio, Declaratio (Illumination, Manifestation, Declaration); cf. Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:22; and John 2:1-11;  where the Baptism and the Marriage at Cana were dwelt upon. Western Christians have traditionally emphasized the “Revelation to the Gentiles” mentioned in Luke, where the term Gentile means all non-Jewish peoples. The Biblical Magi, who represented the non-Jewish peoples of the world, paid homage to the infant Jesus in stark contrast to Herod the Great (King of Judea), who sought to kill him. In this event, Christian writers also inferred a revelation to the Children of Israel. Saint John Chrysotom identified the significance of the meeting between the Magi and Herod’s court: “The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all.”

The West observes a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25, and ending on January 5, known as Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America  and some in Europe, extend the season to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (February 2).

On the Feast of the Epiphany, the priest, wearing white vestments, will bless the Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. Chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. The letters stand for the initials of the Magi (traditionally named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), and also the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as “may Christ bless the house”.

According to ancient custom, the priest announced the date of Easter  on the feast of Epiphany. This tradition dated from a time when calendars were not readily available, and the church needed to publicize the date of  Easter, since many celebrations of the liturgical year depend on it. The proclamation may be sung or proclaimed at the ambo by a deacon, cantor, or reader either after the reading of the Gospel or after the post communion prayer. 

The Roman Missal  thus provides a formula with appropriate chant (in the tone of the Exsultet) for proclaiming on Epiphany, wherever it is customary to do so, the dates in the calendar for the celebration of Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, Ascension of Jesus Christ, Pentecost, the Body and Blood of Christ, and the First Sunday of Advent that will mark the following liturgical year.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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