Epiphany: A Divine Realisation

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Christian Feast celebrating the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
  • 2020 Date: January 6th, or The first Sunday of the New Year
  • Celebrated by: Christians
  • Linked Holidays: Christmas, Feast of the Baptism, Transfiguration.

Background and Theological Significance

The revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God can refer to one of two events to a Church, depending on whether the Church in question is Eastern or Western. 

In Western Christianity it refers to the Three Wise Men, Magi, or Kings from the East visiting Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus shortly after his birth and proclaiming him to be the Son of God. In the Eastern Church the Epiphany commemorates the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan before he embarked on his mission and teachings. 

What these events have in common is that they are recognised as the first time that Jesus is recognised as God incarnate. The word Epiphany reflects this; while now the word has a more mundane meaning of suddenly realising something, its origin lies in a sudden presence of a power or wondrous sight that is often tied to divinity. The significance of this festival, then, is that it marks the first time humanity recognised that God had been born among them according to Christian Theology.

History

The dates for commemorations of events in Jesus Christ’s life are often the product of specific cultural and political movements in the long history of the Church as it spread, particularly throughout Europe. The placement of Epiphany on the 6th of January, however, seems to have been done relatively early in the Western Church.

At its core the festival is a celebration of the recognition of God being present with humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. As a result, the scope of the festival has at various times included the commemoration of various other events from the Gospel narratives. This includes not just the Visitation of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus, but also the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, and even Jesus’ Birth as well; the Epiphany has been attached to all of these events by different Christian theologians throughout history.

What Happens?

Epiphany marks the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which traditionally marks the end of Christmas celebrations. In the West the idea is that Christmas decorations should be taken down before this day in order to avoid bad luck for the next year. Outside of this, however, there seems to be surprisingly little commonality in how Epiphany is celebrated.

In parts of Central Europe, priests are known to bless the church and houses with offerings of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh the gifts that were brought by the Magi to honour Jesus; then the priest uses chalk to write the names of the three magi above the door of the church and houses with a phrase asking for Christ to bless this house.

Eastern Orthodox Churches often take this time to bless great bodies of water; local rivers and seas. In Bulgaria, priests will bless the Yantra River by throwing a large wooden cross into its waters; following which local Christians will dive into the freezing waters to retrieve it, the first to reach it is considered blessed. There are also often traditional dances and songs performed by groups of people as they stand in the waters of the river.

In many parts of Latin America, the day is known as the ‘Day of Kings’, referring to the Magi, and is preceded by the ‘Night of Kings’. On this night, Children traditionally leave their shoes by the door along with hay and water for the Camel, Horse, and Elephant that the Magi are riding. Provided the children go to bed on time, they will wake to find gifts in their shoes left as a show of gratitude by the three kings.

Many more localised celebrations occur to mark this feast; to many to relay here. Needless to say that the variety and popularity of these traditions demonstrate the continued importance that this festival holds for many people around the world. A powerful reminder that God is with them.

“Magi detail” by JoetheLion is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

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