Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival that pre-dates the celebration of Christmas. For many centuries it was (and still is in some parts of the Church) the second most important celebration of the Christian year, Easter being the first. Epiphany is also one of the two major festivals in the Christian year on which it was customary to initiate people into the church through baptism, the other being the Great Vigil of Easter. Its length (5-8 weeks) depends on the date of Easter, which determines the start of Lent.
“Epiphany” means “revelation.” During the season of Epiphany, Christians contemplate the figure of Jesus as a revelation of God’s hopes for the world. It is a time of growing insight into the way we believe God was working for our good through Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, justice, and reconciliation. Who he is for us and our salvation “dawns on us” gradually during this season of light.
Epiphany begins with a double commemoration—the visit of the Magi to the child in Bethlehem, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river.
The story of the Magi, or ‘wise men from the East’, is found in Matthew 2:1-12. These mythic Magi are ancient astrologers, the scientists and philosophers of their day, who follow the trajectory of a new star from their own countries to the manger in Bethlehem, after eluding the machinations of King Herod. There they acknowledge the Babe as a ‘new king’ and a revelation of God, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they return home ‘by a different way.’
The gospel of Matthew says nothing about the meaning of these gifts, but later Christian imagination assigned symbolic meaning to them. Gold honors the Child’s royal lineage—Jesus is said to be descended from the house of King David. Frankincense, a costly incense, recognizes his divine origin—Jesus was said to have been born “of the Holy Spirit.” Myrrh, a bitter ointment, foretells the suffering of Jesus on the cross.
Because of the importance of Epiphany, we have countless homilies and commentaries on its meaning from early Christian preachers. Three aspects of Epiphany stand out in these sermons:
The visit of the Magi symbolizes the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promise of salvation. The non-Jewish world is given a great gift through the birth of this Jewish baby in Bethlehem: we come to “sees the light” with our own eyes and receive the blessings of God’s promises given first (and forever) to the Jews. We are, in Paul’s words’ “grafted on” to the ancient tree, adopted into the family and made heirs of the Promise.
The Magi’s visit also stands for the illumination of secular learning with the light of faith—human knowledge deepened, corrected, and perfected by the encounter with divine mystery. The wise men discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own, by their own lights. Epiphany is thus the feast of the learned and the wise who know much, but who also humbly bow before divine wisdom, acknowledging their own limits and unknowing in light of the vastness of the mystery of God.
The journey of the Magi was also a way of speaking about vocation, or faith’s steady calling to the human heart. Epiphany is a season of callings—Jesus chooses his disciples and begins schooling them in the ways of the Kingdom of God. Christians have always seen in the Star a sign of beckoning for the Church and for each and every disciple. Following the Star perseveringly our whole life long leads us to our deepest desire, to wholeness and fulfillment through our obedient responsiveness to God.
In the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3:13-17, the author places Jesus in the company of ordinary people—“sinners”—who have lined up at the Jordan to be purified and prepared by a baptism of repentance. These are the same people with whom Jesus will most closely associate himself throughout his ministry. “I have come,” he said, “to look for the lost.”
The early Christians saw in Jesus’ submission to baptism—which they believe he did not require, not being a sinner—a revelation of his human solidarity with the poor and the despised who knew that they were in need of God’s mercy and had no one else to turn to. In the story, a heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s son, but we come to know precisely what sort of son we have in Jesus when we are shown that he identifies himself with sinners.
The heavenly voice also reveals that God is “well-pleased” with him (and presumably with this identification). Christians have traditionally understood this epiphany as an assurance that, by extension, God has also accepted us as beloved children and is well-pleased with us too, especially when, following the practice of Jesus, we live in solidarity with those whom the world rejects, and work for justice and peace.