Epiphany

Epiphany (Theophany or Three Kings’ Day,) is a Christian feast day celebrated annually on 6 January. It celebrates the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Moreover, the feast of the Epiphany, in some Western Christian denominations, also initiates the liturgical season of Epiphanytide. Eastern Christians, on the other hand, commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God.

The traditional date for the feast is January 6. However, since 1970, the celebration is held in some countries on the Sunday after January 1. Eastern Churches following the Julian calendar observe the feast on what for most countries is January 19 because of the 13-day difference today between that calendar and the generally used Gregorian calendar. In many Western Christian Churches, the eve of the feast is celebrated as Twelfth Night. The Monday after Epiphany is known as Plough Monday. Popular Epiphany customs include Epiphany singing, chalking the door, having one’s house blessed, consuming Three Kings Cake, winter swimming, as well as attending church services.

Epiphany may have originated in the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire as a feast to honor the baptism of Jesus. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that, “But the followers of Basilides celebrate the day of His Baptism too, spending the previous night in readings. And they say that it was the 15th of the month Tybi of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. And some say that it was observed the 11th of the same month.” The Egyptian dates given correspond to January 6 and 10. The Basilides were a Gnostic sect.

The reference to “readings” suggests that the Basilides were reading the Gospels. In ancient gospel manuscripts, the text is arranged to indicate passages for liturgical readings. If a congregation began reading Mark at the beginning of the year, it might arrive at the story of the Baptism on January 6, thus explaining the date of the feast. If Christians read Mark in the same format the Basilides did, the two groups could have arrived at the January 6 date independently. The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361, by Ammianus Marcellinus. The holiday is listed twice, which suggests a double feast of baptism and birth. The Nativity was assigned to the same date as the birth because Luke 3:23 was misread to mean that Jesus was exactly 30 when he was baptized.

Epiphanius of Salamis says that January 6 is Christ’s “Birthday; that is, His Epiphany” (hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion) And that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day. Epiphany includes the commemoration of Jesus’ birth; the visit of the magi, all of Jesus’ childhood events, up to and including the Baptism by John the Baptist; and even the miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. In the Latin-speaking West, the holiday emphasized the visit of the magi. The magi represented the non-Jewish peoples of the world, so this was considered a “revelation to the gentiles.” In 385, the pilgrim Egeria (also known as Silvia) described a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which she called “Epiphany” that commemorated the Nativity. In a sermon delivered on 25 December 380, St. Gregory of Nazianzus referred to the day as “the Theophany” (ta theophania), To commemorate “the holy nativity of Christ”. In the 5th century Egyptian monasteries celebrated the Nativity and the Baptism together on January 6 while the Armenian Apostolic Church continues to celebrate January 6 as the only commemoration of the Nativity.

Until 1955 the Latin Church celebrated Epiphany as an eight-day feast, known as the Octave of Epiphany, beginning on January 6 and ending on January 13. However Pope Pius XII abolished all but three liturgical octaves. The Sunday within that octave is the feast of the Holy Family, and Christmastide (The twelve days ending on January 5) followed by the January 6–13 octave. The Feast of the Epiphany is considered as part of Christmas Time, extending from the First Vespers of Christmas (the evening of December 24) up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday after January 6). Lutheran, United Methodist and United Church of Christ congregations, along with those of other denominations, may celebrate Epiphany on January 6, on the following Sunday within the Epiphany week (octave), or at another time (Epiphany Eve January 5, the nearest Sunday, etc.) Many Eastern churches celebrate Epiphany (Theophany) on January 6 Russian Churches use the older Julian calendar for reckoning church dates. At present Epiphany falls on January 19 in the Gregorian Calender which corresponds with January 6 in the Julian calendar.

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