The holiday which grew into Christmas.
Epiphany (in some churches it’s called Theophany) falls on 6 January. Well, unless your church still follows the Julian calendar, in which case it’s gonna wind up on 19 January. It comes right after the last day of Christmas. In fact Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because of Epiphany.
See, Epiphany celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world. True, the Christmas stories figure that was with the angels and sheep-herders, and maybe with the magi. But technically he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son.
John 1.29-34 KWL
- 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.
- He said, “Look: God’s ram, taking up the world’s sin! 30 This is the one I spoke of!
- ‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—because he’s first over me.
- 31 And I hadn’t seen him! But I came baptizing in water so he’d be revealed to Israel.”
- 32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
- descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
- 33 And I hadn’t seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
- —yes, him—told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
- that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
- 34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”
The third-century Christians began to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in January. Why January? Historians’ best guess is the early churches divided up the gospels into a year’s worth of readings, and if you start with Mark, you get to the baptism story in the second week of the year. So it wasn’t ’cause anybody knew the date of the baptism; it’s just the date they read the baptism story.
Since Jesus was also sorta revealed as God incarnate at his annunciation, Epiphany celebrations began to include his birth stories. Till the early Christians realized the birth needed its own celebration. Thus the 12 days before Epiphany became the separate celebration of Christmas. Yep, that’s how it happened; Christians didn’t take over any pagan winter solstice festivals, and claim Jesus was born around the time the days began to grow longer. We still don’t know when he was born. Doesn’t matter, though. All we needed was a day—or 12—to celebrate. And for the longest time, Epiphany also lasted several days: Usually eight.
And Epiphany marks the end of Christmastime. Bummer.
If you’re an eastern Christian, most of your focus on Epiphany is gonna be Jesus’s baptism. If western, the magi—not all the birth-of-Jesus stories got transferred to Christmas. So for eastern Christians this is also known as the Feast of Christ’s Baptism, and for western Christians this is considered Three Kings Day.
The difference in emphasis sometimes results in some drastically different celebrations. Western Christians tend to celebrate the magi with gifts and cake. Eastern Christians tend to focus on water, baptisms, and house blessings.
Some easterners consider this a fast day: No celebrating, but solemn remembrance, almost as if it’s Good Friday. ’Cause to them, Jesus’s path to the cross began at his baptism. (Yeah, this is a real bummer of an interpretation.)
Most of the Protestants I bump into, know little to nothing about Epiphany, and assume it’s a Catholic thing with no relevance to them. Like the other days of Christmas, they ignore ’em: All they know and care about, are what popular culture makes a big deal out of. So while they might personally appreciate Jesus’s baptism, they don’t care about making any feast day of it. And they were done with the magi at Christmas.
Still, whether or how you celebrate the day, the important thing is God became human.
John 1.14-18 KWL
- 14 The word was made flesh. He encamped with us.
- We got a good look at his significance—
- the significance of a father’s only son—filled with grace and truth.
- 15 John testifies about him, saying as he called out, “This is the one I spoke of!
- ‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—because he’s first.”
- 16 All of us received things out of his fullness. Grace after grace:
- 17 The Law which Moses gave; the grace and truth which Christ Jesus became.
- 18 Nobody’s ever seen God.
- The only Son, God who’s in the Father’s womb, he explains God.
Okay, now you can take your lights down.