Epiphany 101

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Jeannie Dortch photo

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.

Blessed Epiphany!

p.s. Chaplain Travis Moger, a fellow Baptist, has posted some wonderful thoughts about Epiphany on his blog.  Click here to read.

9 thoughts on “Epiphany 101

  1. Sorry I missed the message. I heard it was excellent. I’ll have to catch it on the internet.

    At my house, we celebrate January 6 for a different reason. My father was born on January 6, and had he lived past 2006, he would have been 90 this year. He was a man of God, truly a wise man, through whom the light of the world shone. Perhaps his middle initial, “E,” stood for Epihpany!

  2. Our big Epiphany celebration today led me to bring out my St. Thomas Episcopal Church cookbook- it is organized by church season and is full of interesting notes on their church traditions. It states that Epiphany begins on Jan 6 and continues for 10 Sundays, ending at Lent. The color of the season is green. Green symbolizes growth and development. On the altar they use evergreens, forsythia, chrysanthemums and carnations. This section of the cookbook includes “warm, simmering things” during the coldest season. There are also recipes for Shrove Tuesday, I had to look that one up!

  3. If Epihpany goes commercial we’re all in trouble! Thanks for the education on this–kind of like finding a diamond in the rough. Now it is our task to cut it so it truely shines and reflects in our individual lives.

  4. I was in TLC so I missed the sermon, but I’ll try to read or listen to it this week. I vote for the Irish celebration…moms getting a day off! I have some friends who always keep their tree up through the 6th of January because they believe Christmas continues until that date. Pretty cool!

  5. How wonderful that you have brought the beautiful celebration of Epiphany to First Baptist .

    For the many years Gary and I taught 4th grade Sunday
    School with a great team of teachers, we always honored
    Epiphany with the children. We made special crafts of
    Wiseman ornaments and spiced pomanders to represent the lesson. Candi Brown, Deborah Upton, Brenda Woods,
    and the parents of the Children’s Team used our classroom
    for Epiphany party for the children complete with “Star Soup”. We always saved the special “King” figures and
    flag banner to be hung in the classroom for the occassion.

    Gary and I enjoyed having neighborhood Epiphany celebrations at our house and never take the decorations down until that special night has passed.
    Now we celebrate with our grown up fourth graders
    in “Reunion Fellowship” instead.

  6. Happy Epiphany! We do celebrate Epiphany in our home. We celebrate each week in leading up to Christmas by lighting candles on our Advent wreath, reading Bible verses, and playing Christmas hymns on the piano. Then we put out a red candle which is lit on Epiphany, also accompanied by a Bible reading and, you guessed it, playing and singing “We Three Kings”. The church I was raised in didn’t emphasize Epiphany, but we began this tradition after I got a book outlining family Christmas devotions.
    We have another tradition from when our daughter was young that involves our nativity scene. We start Advent with an empty stable. The figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherd, sheep and the wise men move slowly across several rooms to the manger (staying on tables and mantels to avoid becoming cat toys). Mary and Joseph arrive first, then the shepherd with his sheep. Baby Jesus appears on Christmas Eve, and the wise men don’t arrive until January 6th. At age 13, our daughter still enjoys moving the figures, now appreciating the Christmas story on a deeper level.

  7. Back on February 24, 2008, I experienced what I considered, my own personal “Epiphany” which was the sudden realization of my life’s purpose (better late than never). I had always thought of “Epiphany” as the number 3. definition in my Webster’s Dictionary: ” . . sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” My personal definition was an “sudden Awakening, or an Aha moment!” I never paid much attention to the number 1. definition: “January 6 . . . manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles . . . ” You were absolutely right: not “everyone knows what ‘Epiphany’ is.” I am truly grateful for your blog, in further educating me on this matter. There is so much hype (especially, commercial) before Christmas, and then it seems that it comes to a screeching halt the day after. I love the idea of extending celebrations through January 6, and I plan to start a new tradition by celebrating and keeping my Christmas decorations up through that day, beginning next Christmas season! You are a wonderful story teller, teacher, and pastor.

    Happy January 6, 2009!

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