Epiphany is one of my favourite feasts in the Christian calendar. It doesn’t get much attention in the dominant culture, which is kind of nice, especially after all of the attention Christmas gets.
Epiphany is a much bigger celebration in the Eastern Orthodox traditions of the church. And in fact, Epiphany was the more important early winter festival that highlighted the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Christmas only began to be celebrated in the 4th century, taking over a number of Roman festivals, i.e. Saturnalia, Juvenalia, and the birth day of Mithra, the god of the sun.
Christmas started in Rome, spread to Egypt by the 430’s and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, Christmas was celebrated in all of the northern countries. It was first called the Feast of the Nativity and many of the traditions now considered Christmas traditions were taken from the festivals that occurred in December in particular countries… Christmas trees, Yule festivals, lights, certain foods, etc.
The history of Epiphany is more religious. In the Eastern Church, it had more to do with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and “manifestation,” i.e. the literal meaning of epiphany. In the Western Church, the visit of the Magi was emphasized as a symbol of Jesus’ manifestation to the world. Some trace the origins of Epiphany back to 200 and Clement of Alexandria, who emphasized the baptism of Jesus.
However you cut it, epiphany refers to “a manifestation of Christ to the world.” Epiphany also marks the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. Some cultures eat Three Kings Cakes, some chalk the door in order to bless one’s home, and many mark the day with a feast. The night before Epiphany is also known as 12th Night. In Greece, the day is known as The Day of Lights.
In the Russian and Ukrainian Churches, with the emphasis on baptism, there is tradition of breaking a hole in the ice of a river or lake and having pilgrims dip into the frigid water. (Maybe a bit like our polar bear swims.) It is a baptismal idea that we wash off the old year and the things we want to discard and then rise as new people. Many years ago, while visiting a Ukrainian friend for Ukrainian Christmas, we watched a program, all in Ukrainian—which neither of us understood—and marveled at these people daring to immerse themselves in the frigid waters of some river or other in the Ukraine! In January! In spite of not understanding the language, we understood and appreciated the symbolism.
Like the Greeks, at Epiphany I think of the gift of light and the light of love that resides in each of us and all creation. I think Epiphany invites us into the realm of mysticism and invites a renewed sense of wonder and awe. Christ is light of the world that points to the light that is in all of us. This is especially poignant to us in the northern hemisphere when the days are short and the nights long and light is precious. (Not having experienced the southern hemisphere in January, I don’t know how the sense of light plays out at Epiphany—perhaps there is an enjoyment of the long days and short nights.)
Beginning the year from a mystical place of awe and wonder leads us to desire opportunities for awe and wonder for all people, especially those who are living in fear of violence, poverty or oppression. The source for my own sense of justice and my own activism stems from this deeply planted and mystical idea that the Light of Christ is present in me, in you and in all that has life.
I wish you all a blessed Epiphany and may you experience a renewed sense of the awe and wonder of life… your life and all life!