Episco-Fact #122
January 3, 2019

What is Epiphany?

This Sunday, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the feasting bookend to the Christmas season, although it is not officially part of Christmas. It is a Principal Feast according to the BCP, page 15, which means that its celebration takes precedence over all other observances. Unfortunately for modern Christians in the western world its celebration is often obscured because its observance has never risen to the cultural heights of Christmas (The Feast of the Nativity), combined with being a fixed date observance that does not fall on a weekend. Most years Epiphany passes without much fanfare.

This year the feast falls on a Sunday so that we are allowed to celebrate it in its fullness. The story behind the Feast is that of the Birth Narrative found in Matthew. Therefore, it involves Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Herod, Magi, Bethlehem, expensive gifts, and a star. Things and people not found in this story are Octavian (Augustus Caesar), a census, shepherds, and a manger.

As background to its celebration, it was a principal feast in the Eastern Roman Empire, that part of the Roman Empire under the influence and cultural sway of Constantinople, (i.e. Greek) by the early 3rd Century. Along with the feasts of Easter and Pentecost, it ranked and a major part of religious life. Originally it was as much associated with the Feast pf the Baptism of Our Lord, celebrated next week as the First Sunday after Epiphany, as often as it was associated with the Nativity.

It was introduced in the western church, that part of Christianity dominated by Rome and Latin. In the west, it lost its association with Baptism and became associated with the manifestation (manifestation{Latin} = epiphany{Greek}) of Christ to the Gentiles, who are represented by the Magi. This explanation is in The Homilies on the Theophania (another name for the feast) by Leo I (aka, The Great), Pope in the Mid-fifth Century.

For clarification, the Twelve Days of Christmas run from December 25 through January 5. The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, marks the start of a separate season, which is marked like ordinary-time and high-lighted mostly by green hangings after the feast day's white. 

The season after Epiphany is characterized by stories about Jesus which show how the reality of God shines for in his ministry, actions, and preaching. It ends with appropriate Gospel readings of the Transfiguration on the mountain witnessed by Peter, James, and John. A fitting manifestation if there is one.