Epiphany

EPIPHANY. From a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” the term originally marked a feast to celebrate the baptism of Christ (Matt.3.16-Matt.3.17)—and still does so in the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Lord had similarly “revealed his glory” at his first miracle in Cana of Galilee (John.2.11). From the fourth century, however, Epiphany has been linked with Christ’s manifestation of himself to the Magi, the first Gentiles who believed in him (Matt.2.1-Matt.2.12). In England, it has become customary for the monarch to offer gold, myrrh, and frankincense in the Chapel Royal every year on January 6, the day the feast is observed.


The feast of the epiphany is celebrated on 6 January, to commemorate (in the West) the visit of the wise men to Jesus (Matt. 2) and (in the East) the baptism of Christ. The name derives from the Greek epiphaneia (manifestation), and it recalls the spiritual significance of the occasion when Gentile magi came from the East (Matt. 2:1) to adore the infant Messiah. The birth of Christ concerns the whole world. The (Eastern) origin of the festival is clear; for Clement of Alexandria, in the third century, refers to a Gnostic commemoration of the baptism of Jesus on 6 January. The date was probably chosen under Egyptian influence. The object of the feast is less easy to determine, since by the fourth century Epiphany celebrated the birth of Jesus, His baptism, His adoration by the wise men, and the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11). In the East, baptismal water was blessed on that day; and this is still the custom in the Eastern Church. The River Jordan itself is blessed in Palestine at Epiphany. In the Roman liturgy, from the fourth century onward, the feast became primarily a recollection of the manifestation of Christ to the world after his birth; although subordinate themes are included to commemorate any disclosure of His divine power.

See H. Usener, Das Weihnachtsfest (RU I, 1889), esp. pp. 18-213.