What Is Epiphany?
By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
You might think the holiday season ends when the ball drops at midnight and we ring in a new year, but not so fast. For many Christians around the world, the holiday season is not over until they celebrate Epiphany. Some of you reading this are having an epiphany right now because you are wondering, what is Epiphany? Well, I am here to help you.
Epiphany is a holiday celebrated by many Christians around the world. The focus of Epiphany centers on two events in Jesus’ life. Mainly the Magi’s visit to Jesus when he was a baby and his baptism by John the Baptist.
What Does "Epiphany" Mean?
The word epiphany originates from a Greek word epiphainein, which means reveal, appearance, or manifestation. All Christians do not celebrate Epiphany, however, those who do will commemorate either his birth or his baptism. The tradition you follow typically dictates which one of these you emphasize. Christians who follow an Eastern tradition put their emphasis on Jesus’ baptism. Those who follow a Western tradition emphasize the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus which is more about his birth.
The difference in the traditions focuses on two different ways Jesus is manifested to the world. The celebration of his birth is a time to remember Jesus’ introduction as Savior to the Gentiles, which are represented by the Magi. For those who choose to commemorate his baptism, it is an acknowledgement of his divinity and the announcement of his ministry to the world.
When Is Epiphany?
Now that you know a little about what Epiphany is, when do you celebrate it? This largely depends on which tradition and calendar you follow. For those who follow a Western tradition, which includes Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, among others, they celebrate Epiphany on January 6. This follows the Gregorian calendar where Christmas falls on December 25, which is the day most people celebrate Christmas. For those who are of the Eastern tradition, which includes the Greek Orthodox among others, they celebrate this holiday on January 19 because they follow a Julian calendar where Christmas occurs on January 7.
Why Is Epiphany Celebrated 12 days after Christmas?
You have probably sung the song the 12 Days of Christmas (I can never remember what gifts they gave on days nine through twelve). However, this song has ties to the celebration of Epiphany. For those who follow this tradition, the 12 days mark the time it took after the birth of Jesus for the Magi to travel to Bethlehem. For those following the Western tradition, this begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, which is the day they celebrate Epiphany. In the Eastern tradition, Christmas falls on January 7, so they celebrate Epiphany twelve days later on January 19.
To clarify, the Bible does not tell us when the Magi came to visit Jesus. When you carefully study the culture and the Scriptures, you can conclude with almost one hundred percent certainty, the Magi did not visit Jesus twelve days after he was born. While it makes for a good Christmas carol, let’s recognize the twelve days are not part of the Biblical narrative and, to be honest, I am not sure where the idea came from.
How Is Epiphany Celebrated?
The celebration of Epiphany varies around the world. Central to it, as with the Christmas holiday itself, are food, family, fun, and sometimes gifts. Some cultures bake specific types of cakes and pastries designed especially for this occasion. For example, in England, one of the fun traditions is they make a cake called The Twelfth Night cake. This is a dense fruitcake which has a bean somewhere in the cake. When eating the cake, if you get the slice with the bean, they deem you the king or queen and everyone must do what you tell them.
If you are from the New Orleans area, this is like king cake where a small, porcelain baby symbolizing Jesus is hidden in one of the pieces. Whoever gets that piece, according to the tradition, is getting something that symbolizes prosperity (clearly this is superstition, and we should put no weight or value in it at all). Aside from these fun aspects around Epiphany, the fundamental aspect of the celebration remembers Christ’s manifestation to the world as our Messiah, the only hope for all humanity.
Where Do We Read about Epiphany in Scripture?
As I mentioned earlier, the celebration of Epiphany is based on two events in Jesus’ life which are found in the gospels. You find the story of the Magi in Matthew 2.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’… After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 12:1-2; 9-11).
You find the accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the gospels, and here is one from Matthew.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Why Is This Holiday Important for Us as Believers?
Beyond understanding what Epiphany is, the question becomes why is this holiday important for believers? First, we must recognize that all believers don’t celebrate Epiphany. For complete transparency, I have been saved over forty years and been in church all my life and I have never celebrated Epiphany. The celebration of Epiphany largely depends on the denomination you belong to. In the churches I grew up in and have since attended, we celebrated Christmas but never Epiphany. For those believers who choose to celebrate it, much like Christmas itself, the importance you place on it can only happen when you strip away the elements that dilute the reason for the celebration.
The importance of the holiday is only in remembering who Christ is and why he came. You can and should celebrate that every day of the year. You don’t have to wait for Epiphany. It is also important to spend time with family, friends, and loved ones which is always good to do (maybe I should say is usually good to do. I guess it depends on your family). Regardless, this is a holiday of gathering and remembering. If you truly focus on remembering, then the importance of Epiphany increases.
What is Epiphany? Simply, it is a time to remember who Jesus is and what he came to do. Whether you choose to celebrate this holiday is up to you. There is no Biblical mandate that says you must celebrate it and like me, many of my Christian friends don’t. However, if you are going to celebrate it, then let’s make it all about Jesus. This is good to do every day and not just limit it to certain days or times of the year. When we do this, then honestly every day can be Epiphany.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fermate
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.