The Triple Meaning of the Epiphany

David Oatney Blog: Life at 25


The vast majority of Catholics as well as Christians of other faith traditions have come to view the Feast of the Epiphany as a celebration of the visit to the Christ Child by the Magi, or Three Wise Men, as some of our traditional English translations have come to call them. The coming of the Magi to Christ and their presentation of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh certainly do have tremendous significance and theological meaning. The gifts themselves are often seen as representative of Christ’s nature and life: Gold for Christ the King, frankincense for Christ the Divinity, and myrrh (a rare, fragrant, but very bitter natural resin often used in anointing bodies for burial or mummification rituals in the ancient Near East) for Christ the Sacrifice. Hence, the significance of the coming of the Magi has come to be celebrated in our modern Christian spiritual and liturgical experience as the event of the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is more than appropriate to celebrate this important theological and spiritual event as part of the Epiphany, the coming of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem was not what this extremely important feast was originally all about.

The hard calendar date for the Feast of the Epiphany is January 6th, traditionally “the 12th Day of Christmas.” In modern times, the Church moves the liturgical celebration of the Epiphany to the Sunday closest to the 6th. This year, we are blessed that those two dates are one and the same. In the Eastern Church, the Incarnation is celebrated on January 6th, which is also the Feast of the Epiphany. January 6th was the date the Incarnation was originally celebrated in both East and West, we celebrate it on December 25th because of the arguments of the early Christian philosopher and chronographer Sextus Julius Africanus. What is celebrated on January 6th, however, isn’t just a celebration of Christ’s birth, but a celebration of the fact that the Word was revealed to the wider world to have been made flesh.

The word “epiphany” in the Greek means “a manifestation” or a “striking appearance.” Many scholars and Christian theologians believe that the Feast of the Epiphany can also be said to commemorate a Theophany, a vision of God. The Epiphany didn’t originally celebrate the coming of the Magi, although they came to be associated with the feast precisely because their visit to the Christ Child did help reveal the two natures of Christ. The feast celebrates three events which revealed the second person of the Trinity for who he was to the world. The first of these is the Incarnation itself, and we often lose sight of that reality since both religious and secular Western society celebrate Christmas on December 25th, and by the time of the Epiphany, our busy holiday schedules and time away from “normal life” has ended. It is sometimes difficult to imagine in modern culture that the Incarnation is worth a multi-day season of celebration, but the Church wisely reminds us of how Christ’s birth changed history through the length of our liturgical Christmas observance.

The second manifestation of Christ’s divinity and of the saving work of the Godhead through him that has traditionally been celebrated as part of the Feast of the Epiphany is the Baptism of the Lord. Today, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord as a feast of its own separate from the Epiphany, and it both concludes the Christmas season and begins Ordinary Time. However, the ancient Church celebrated the Lord’s Baptism as part of the Epiphany because the Baptism of Christ was yet another occasion where Jesus’ status as Messiah and Lord and as the Second Person of the Trinity was affirmed when the voice of the Father was heard declaring Christ’s Divine Sonship and the dove of the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven (cf. Matthew 3:13-17). Many Eastern Christians believe that this was the very first step on the road to Calvary, and because the Trinity was revealed so clearly in the events of the Jordan, and it was an Epiphany-a manifestation of God-so the Lord’s Baptism remains a part of Epiphany celebrations in the Eastern Church.

The final event that has traditionally been celebrated as one where Christ “made himself known” in a Divine Epiphany is the Wedding at Cana. It was here where Jesus, acting upon a request from his Mother, turned water into wine for the wedding guests. It was Christ’s first miracle, and the hence the first instance where people in the community Jesus knew in his own day might get the hint that he is Messiah and Lord-the event was itself an Epiphany and Theophany-a manifestation of God in Christ Jesus. What happened at the Wedding at Cana was something that was done at Mary’s insistence, but at which Jesus made himself known after telling her “my hour is not yet come,” but at which the best wine was given last, that given by Christ, where he “manifested his glory.” (cf. John 2:1-11)

What the Epiphany celebrates are those times-the Incarnation, the Baptism of the Lord, the Wedding at Cana, and even in modern times the gifts of the Magi, where the Divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity, was made manifest and revealed to humanity in a very special way. Epiphany really celebrates the revelation that in all of these things “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.” (cf. John 1:14)