Epiphany Definition and Summary
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 6, although in the United States it is transferred to a Sunday. Prayers: Epiphany Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): White
Time of Year: January 6
Duration: One Day (or an entire octave in older custom)
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; Visit of the Magi (West); Christ's baptism (East)
Alternate Names: Theophany, Holy Lights, King's Feast
Scriptural References: Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:13-17
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 Orthodox Churches to this day. In addition, other "manifestations" of Christ have been 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 Matthew. The word Magi, in Greek magoi, comes from the Latin word meaning "sage," and the English word "magic" is derived from it. 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 Saint 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. Then, 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 third 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 sixth 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.
Saint 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).
Saint Bede hints that the magi represent different races, an idea that was further developed around the fourteenth 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, Saint 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 is an ancient feast, dating to the third century in the East. In the East, the Epiphany feast pre-dates the Nativity 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. Saint 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 25 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 fourth 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, with a different formula each year. For example, in 2023 it would be written: 20 + C + M + B + 23 which stands for "Anno Domini 2023 -- Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar" and means "The three Holy Kings, Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, in the year of Our Lord, 2023" 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.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, 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 Epiphany 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. Saint 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).
"Epiphany" from the Catholic Encyclopedia Christian and Church Year Books
This page written by David Bennett.