08 January 2017

Epiphany: The Other Christmas

Epiphany, also known as The Manifestation or Theophany, occurs after the 12 days of Christmas is complete, on January 6th  (in the United States alone it is sometimes transferred to the nearest Sunday).  Below are the meaning, spirituality, and culture of the holiday season, from various sources.


Source: Twelve Days of Christmas by Elsa Chaney, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1955

For many years in the English speaking world the feast of Epiphany has been overshadowed by that of Christmas. But unless we realize the significance of this great day, we see only one side of the mystery of the Incarnation. Now after contemplating the staggering fact that God has become a human child, we turn to look at this mystery from the opposite angle and realize that this seemingly helpless Child is, in fact, the omnipotent God, the King and Ruler of the universe. The feast of Christ's divinity completes the feast of His humanity. It fulfills all our Advent longing for the King "who is come with great power and majesty." We see that whereas Christmas is the family feast of Christianity, Epiphany is the great "world feast of the Catholic Church."

Epiphany is a complex feast. Originating in the Eastern Church and formed by the mentality of a people whose thought processes differ sharply from our own, the Epiphany is like a rich Oriental tapestry in which the various themes are woven and interwoven — now to be seen in their historical setting, again to be viewed from a different vantage point in their deep mystical significance. In this brief introduction four of the main ideas of the Epiphany will be outlined.

1)     Divine manifestation: The Epiphany takes its name from the Greek epiphania, which denotes the visit of a god to earth. The first idea of the feast is the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God. "Begotten before the daystar and before all ages, the Lord our Savior is this day made manifest to the world." The feast unites three events in the life of Christ when His divinity, as it were, shines through His humanity: the adoration of the Magi; the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. Moreover, at Epiphany the Church looks forward to the majestic coming of Christ on the "youngest day" when His manifestation as God will be complete. The Gospel of the baptism is read on the Octave Day, January 13th, the Gospel of the marriage at Cana is read on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, and later Sunday masses in the Epiphany season continue to show the divine power of our Lord in some of His most striking miracles. (Third Sunday: Jesus healing the leper and the Centurion’s servant, Fourth Sunday: Jesus calming the tempest). “Behold, the sovereign Lord is come; in His hands He holds the kingdom, the power, and the empire.”

2)     Royal kingship: A second important idea in Epiphany is the extension of Christ's kingship to the whole world. The revelation of Christ to the three kings at Bethlehem is a symbol of His revelation to the whole of the Gentile world. Epiphany presents to us the calling of not merely a chosen few, but all nations to Christianity.      Ps 94 “For You, My Lord, are a great God, and great King above all kings. For in Your hands are all the ends of the Earth, and the heights of the mountains are Yours. For the sea is Yours, and You made it; and Your hands formed the dry land . . . We are the people of Your pasture and sheep of Your hand.”

3)     Your Light is Come: Closely linked to both these themes of divine manifestation and world kingship is a third idea running through the Epiphany feast: that of light. During Advent, the world was in darkness, and we prayed and waited in the spirit of the Jewish nation which lived in expectation of the Coming Light during thousands of years. At Christmas the Light shone forth, but dimly, seen only by a few around the crib: Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. But at Epiphany the Light bursts forth to all nations and the prophecy is fulfilled: "The Gentiles shall walk in Thy light, and kings in the brightness of Thy rising." The mysterious star of Epiphany, "flashing like a flame," is still another facet of the light-motif, a symbol capable of being interpreted in a dozen different ways.      Is 60 1-6: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come . . . And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. . . All they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense, and showing forth praise to the Lord.”

How much food for thought and reflection is contained in just these three ideas, and what a significance they have for our own time! Epiphany lifts our eyes from the family celebrations and demands that we should include in our vision "all the ends of the earth." It demands that, like the three wise men, we should have the courage to follow the light of the star we have seen, however hazardous the journey; that the light of our faith, like that of the wise men, should be so strong that we are able to see and recognize our Lord and Ruler in however unexpected a way He may present Himself to us; and that having recognized Him, we should bow down and adore Him, offering Him our total loyalty.

Moreover, Epiphany demands that like these kings we should return to our own countries a different way, carrying to all those we meet the light of Christ. "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth," says the Epistle of the Epiphany Mass, "and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon Thee, and His glory shall be seen upon Thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in Thy light. . ." These words may be applied to us, upon whom the light of Christ has indeed risen, and who have the responsibility to radiate that light in the darkness of our own world. It is clear how much the feast of Epiphany must mean to all who are engaged in the apostolate and are striving to extend the kingdom of Christ.

4)     The royal nuptials: Besides the important ideas outlined above, there is still another great theme threaded through the Epiphany feast—the theme of the royal nuptials, the wedding of Christ with humanity. It is an idea on a completely different level from the historical events which the Epiphany celebrates, yet inextricably bound up with them; for example, the historical marriage feast of Cana is used by the Church to suggest the setting for Christ's nuptials with the Church; the wise men represent not only the three Persian Magi adoring the Babe 2000 years ago at Bethlehem, but also the Gentile world hurrying to the wedding feast at the end of time when mankind's nuptials with the divine Bridegroom will be celebrated; the gold, frankincense and myrrh are not only tokens for the little Baby King in the stable, but royal wedding gifts for the mystical marriage feast of heaven.

The Epiphany antiphon for the hour of Lauds brings out strikingly this theme of the divine marriage of Christ with humanity, and at the same time shows the deep mystical significance behind the historical events surrounding the feast. Perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this antiphon do we see that on Epiphany we do not commemorate a set of historical facts as much as we celebrate a great mystery: "This day the Church is joined to her heavenly Spouse, for Christ has cleansed her crimes in the Jordan. With gifts the Magi hasten to the royal nuptials, and the guests are gladdened with wine made from water."

Source: Saint Thomas Meditations for every day, by Fr E.C. McEnery O.P., Columbus [Ohio], Long’s College book company, 1951
COLOR SYMBOL: Yellow or White
RECOGNITION: Christ’s Kingly Power
OUR GIFT: Charity, Almsgiving, Search for Wisdom
 Ever since the birth of Christ, and perhaps before the Savior’s birth, gold was considered precious and as something greatly to be prized.  In a spiritual sense gold means heavenly wisdom.  The wise men were called wise because they followed the star, found the Savior, gave Him their gold (in place of hoarding it), for they recognized Jesus as the Giver of all good gifts and realized that whatever good things they had were from God.  To recognize that important fact and to appreciate it is the highest wisdom and more precious to us than gold and silver.

 MAGI’S GIFT: Frankincense
RECOGNITION: Christ’s Divinity
OUR GIFT: Prayer, Faith, Devotion
 The Magi also brought frankincense to the Crib of Bethlehem and offered it to the world’s Redeemer.  Frankincense is a fragrant inflammable resin, burnt as incense, producing a sweet smelling odor.  In the spiritual order it signifies a devout prayer.  Hence King David, the royal Psalmist says, “O Lord, hear my voice, and let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight.” (Ps. CXL, 2.)  To have our prayers thus directed to God, they must be fervent and inflamed with the fire of charity.

RECOGNITION: Christ’s Humanity
OUR GIFT: Sacrifice, Fasting, Mortification
Myrrh is the aromatic gummy resin of Balsamodendron.   Myrrh that grows in Arabia and Abyssinia and is of an agreeable or spicy nature.  By Myrrh, in the spiritual sense, is understood the mortification of the flesh (so much needed in this age of luxury, ease and up-to-date comfort).  Wherefore, we read in Canticles (V, 5) “I arose up to open to My Beloved.  My hands dropped with myrrh and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.”  In these words the Church mystically describes Christ to those who know Him not, that is, to infidels; in order to convert them to the true faith.

By the visible things namely, gold, frankincense and myrrh when considered in a spiritual manner, we rise to a knowledge of the invisible things of God; and only then do we realize how much we need heavenly wisdom, devout prayer and mortification of the flesh. These three are the spiritual gold of the human soul.


Epiphany occurs after the 12 days of Christmas is complete, on January 6th.  Twelfth Night parties used to be popular in the evening on January 5th since it was the last day of Christmas. In many cultures, it is tradition to put out the children’s shoes on Twelfth Night and fill them with grass or hay to feed the camels on their way to the Christ Child! The next morning, on Epiphany, the shoes would be filled with small ‘thank you’ treats and presents, as in some cultures it is on January 6th, not December 25th, that gifts would be exchanged. 

Slow down and enjoy! The season of Epiphany runs until Candlemas, on February 2nd, when the Christ Child is presented at the temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after His birth. [That means that A) you can wait and start putting up Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve, and B) you can relax and take delight in your Christmas decorations/music for 40 days, all through January. It’s totally cool, in a counter-secular-culture kind of way!]. It is also tradition within the octave after Epiphany for the blessing of homes and water. To learn more about blessing your own home door yourself with chalk writing, go to this link or this link

In some carnival-centric societies where Epiphany is taken seriously, they celebrate all the way until Fat Tuesday and then end it with a bang. Throughout the greater Christmas-tide, these societies offer different variations of circular sweet bread called “Kings Cake.” They go by names such as vasilopita, galette des rois, panettone, tortell, reiaume, bolo rei, banitsa, rosca de reyes, and twelfth cake.

In the English-speaking world, the feast of the Nativity (December 25th) is treated as the greater Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th) is considered the lesser Christmas. However, in the Slavic or North African countries it is Epiphany that is the greater. That is why Epiphany is sometimes nicknamed “Orthodox Christmas.” Traditions include bareback horse racing, dancing, religious processions with parasols, and jumping in water.

H A P P Y   E P I P H A N Y!!! 


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