Epiphany falls on January 6. In places where it is not a holy day of obligation, it is transferred to a Sunday. Historically, the Christian Church of the East celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6th. It wasn’t until the second half of the fourth century that East and West borrowed from one another to enhance their Christmas cycle of feasts; the East took on December 25th for the celebration of Christmas (and the arrival of the Magi) and the West adopted January 6th for Epiphany.
Epiphany or theophany means appearance or manifestation of God. There are 3 images, three events, associated with the feast. These images are illustrated by our liturgical texts, especially succinctly by the antiphon for the Gospel canticle at Evening Prayer (vespers):
Three mysteries mark this holy day:
today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ;
today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast;
today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.
Christmas is about the incarnation, the coming down of the Son of God to become human, to become one of us. Epiphany is the showing of the Christ Child’s divinity, which is beginning to manifest itself in the world.
- The Magi, the wise men follow the star to seek out the newborn king
- Jesus reveals his glory in his first miracle of changing water into wine
- The baptism of Jesus is where God reveals his divine Sonship. A voice comes down from heaven and says “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”(Mt 3.17) and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends on Jesus.
We are meant to identify ourselves with the wise men. We too have seen his star in the east and have come with gifts to adore the Lord. St. Francis de Sales once wrote:
The kings from the East can find pleasure neither in the beauty of the city of Jerusalem,
nor in the magnificence of Herod’s court,
nor in the brilliance of the star.
Their hearts seek the little cave at Bethlehem and its little Child.
(Treatise on the Love of God, Book 5, Chapter 7)
Epiphany gives us our marching orders, not to be blinded by the glamor of the world, but to see Christ in the least among us.