It’s true. I probably should have done a better job of getting the church ready for the celebration of Epiphany on Sunday, January 4. But with all the hoopla surrounding our celebration of Christmas and the subsequent hurrah of New Year’s, there wasn’t a lot of time to explain. Some people showed up on Sunday morning thinking that it was going to be just another day in worship, albeit the first one of the new year. So when I started preaching about the celebration of Epiphany they looked puzzled, like people who hadn’t gotten their invitations in the mail.
They seemed a little less puzzled by the end of the sermon, but for the benefit of those people and any of you who may be new to the Christian calendar, let me tell you everything I’ve learned about Epiphany in the 22 years that I’ve been a pastor. And since I’m doing this from memory, and not in any particular order, feel free to click on the word “comments” at the bottom of this post to let me know where I got it wrong.
- Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphainein, which means, literally, “to shine upon.” It is sometimes translated as “manifestation,” and celebrates the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.
- Typically, Epiphany is associated with the visit of the wise men recorded in Matthew 2:1-2, who followed a star until they found it “shining upon” the house where the baby Jesus was (although, by the time they got there from ancient Persia, Jesus would have been a toddler. It’s a long trip!).
- Epiphany is always associated with light. Some Orthodox Christians refer to it as “the Feast of Lights.” Feel free to bring your sunglasses to church next year.
- Epiphany falls on January 6 every year, just the way Christmas falls on December 25 every year, but sometimes we celebrate it in church on the Sunday closest to January 6 (like we did this time).
- The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany comprise the “season” of Christmas, and it is perfectly acceptable to celebrate the birth of Jesus, sing carols, and even exchange gifts throughout the season (think of the money you could save if you bought Christmas gifts after December 25).
- Some people drag their Christmas trees out of the house on the evening of January 5th, build a big bonfire in the village square, and have a “Twelfth Night” celebration. I don’t know who those people are, but it sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
And now for some other interesting celebrations of Epiphany, gleaned from my research:
- In some countries, Epiphany is celebrated with more vigor than Christmas. For example, Ireland celebrates Epiphany or Little Christmas by giving wives and mothers a day off from their jobs on the 6th of January. This is particularly popular in Cork, where women often leave the home for the day, while husbands take a turn at caring for the children and doing the housework.
- In many Latin American households, children leave out their shoes with bits of hay for the camels ridden by the kings. They often receive gifts on Epiphany, or the Day of the Kings, and it is thought that the gifts are better if one leaves hay for the Kings’ mounts.
- The French often celebrate Epiphany by eating King’s cake or gâteau des Rois. Often a bean or a small toy is placed in the cake. The person who gets the slice with the hidden item is said to enjoy good luck for the year.
- Eastern Orthodox Churches find Epiphany particularly relevant as the revelation of Christ. A church celebration may include the blessing of the waters. The nearest body of water is visited, prayed over, and a crucifix is thrown into the water. If weather conditions permit, swimmers may try to retrieve the cross.
- Epiphany is also associated with the appearance of Christ to St. Paul. In this way, epiphany is used in the sense of one having a revelation from the Greek root. Christ’s appearance to Paul radically altered Paul’s life and turned him into a notably avid Christian who worked very hard to convert his brethren.
- Some Christians find that Epiphany is the last vestige of the non-commercialized holiday. They prefer to enjoy a Christian celebration that is truly based in religion, and not in retail stores. Many choose to celebrate Epiphany with a special gathering of family that does not include gifts, to separate serving “God and Mammon.” Christ explains in his teaching that serving wealth, Mammon, means one cannot devote oneself to God. Thus a day spent reflecting on Christ with little influence on money is a good one to many Christians, and marks Epiphany as special.
There you go, that’s all I know and a good bit more. Hope your Tuesday is a good one, and that your celebration of Epiphany includes eating cake, taking the day off, diving for a crucifix, or putting hay in someone’s shoes (preferably not your own). And beyond all that, some time for reflecting on the miracle of God’s manifestation in a baby boy named Jesus.
p.s. Chaplain Travis Moger, a fellow Baptist, has posted some wonderful thoughts about Epiphany on his blog. Click here to read.