Epiphany: When Jesus was revealed to the world.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 January 2023

6 January is Epiphany, the day which celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world.

True, the Christmas stories depict that taking place on Christmas Day. With angels and sheep-herders, and frequently magi; with Jesus’s dad fully dressed as if he’s about to travel, either ’cause they’re gonna flee to Egypt really soon, or because he and Mary only arrived minutes ago, ’cause they didn’t know better than to travel when you’re heavily pregnant.

Well technically he was revealed to the world at his circumcision, and when those two prophets identified him as important. But really he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry—at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son.

John 1.29-36 The Message
29 The very next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and yelled out, 30 “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ 31 I knew nothing about who he was—only this: that my task has been to get Israel ready to recognize him as the God-Revealer. That is why I came here baptizing with water, giving you a good bath and scrubbing sins from your life so you can get a fresh start with God.”
32 John clinched his witness with this: “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. 33 I repeat, I know nothing about him except this: The One who authorized me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One on whom you see the Spirit come down and stay, this One will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”
35 The next day John was back at his post with two disciples, who were watching. 36 He looked up, saw Jesus walking nearby, and said, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.”

In eastern churches which still follow the Julian calendar, Epiphany’s gonna wind up on 19 January, and sometimes it’ll be called Theophany.

The third-century Christians began to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in January. Why January? Two theories. One is Jesus’s baptism had to take place when the Jordan was in flood, otherwise there wouldn’t’ve been enough water to immerse him. January’s a good bet.

The other theory is the early churches divided up the gospels into a year’s worth of readings—and if you begin with Mark, you get to the baptism story in the second week of January. So since that’s when they always read the baptism story, stands to reason that’s when they’d celebrate Jesus’s baptism. This theory’s much less plausible: The ancient civic year began on 25 March, not 1 January… and why start with Mark when historically Christians start the gospels with Matthew?

Regardless of why, ancient Christians picked 6 January to celebrate Jesus’s baptism. And since Jesus was also sorta revealed as God incarnate at his annunciation, Epiphany celebrations began to include all his birth stories. Till the early Christians realized Jesus’s birth needed its own celebration. Thus the 12 days before Epiphany evolved into a separate celebration of Christmas.

Yep, that’s how it happened. I know; pagans like to claim we Christians took over all the pagan winter solstice festivals, and shoehorned Jesus’s birthday into that. Didn’t work like that. Any Christian can tell you: We didn’t swipe pagan holidays. We swipe Jewish ones. If they happen to line up with pagan ones (as Jewish equinox and harvest festivals naturally would) it still doesn’t mean we swiped pagan holidays.

Nope, we still don’t know when Jesus was born, or baptized. Does it even matter? We just need a day or two to celebrate. Or 12. And for the longest time Epiphany also lasted several days. Usually eight.

Epiphany also marks the end of Christmastime. Bummer.

Customs vary.

If you’re an eastern Christian, most of your focus on Epiphany is gonna be Jesus’s baptism. If western, the magi. And if you’re an Evangelical who knows diddly-squat about Christian history, you’re gonna skip Epiphany altogether as a “Catholic thing,” same as you do the other days of Christmas. Probably you took your tree down on 26 December, right? That’s what comes from looking to popular culture instead of fellow Christians for your customs. But I digress.

For eastern Christians, Epiphany 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 also 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. (It’s a real bummer of an interpretation.)

However you observe the day, the important thing is God became human.

John 1.14-18 KJV
14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. 16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. 18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

Okay, now you can take your Christmas decorations down.