On the calendar of the Church Year, this is the day set aside to celebrate the arrival of the wise men (magi) from the East, who brought gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh," hailing Jesus as the world's Savior.
Historically, Epiphany was the day on which many Christians exchanged gifts, something we've now pushed back to Christmas Day on December 25. (Friends of ours, when their children were small, were visited by Father Christmas on the night before Epiphany. He brought gifts for the children that night, which they opened on the morning of January 6. It always struck me that Father Christmas was shrewder than the red-coated guy with the fat belly. Unlike Santa Claus, Father Christmas apparently took advantage of the after-Christmas sales for these gifts opened by the children on Epiphany morning!)
The word epiphany is a transliteration of a word appearing in the original Greek of the New Testament. Epiphane means to shine upon. (To transliterate a word means to take it over into a new language, largely unchanged, maintaining the same meaning.)
On the first Epiphany, a star shone upon the place where the Christ Child was living, guiding the magi to Him. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection to recount this event.
It's interesting to note that the first Epiphany occurred some time after the first Christmas, in spite of our penchant for collapsing the two events into one crowded night at a Bethlehem barn. According to Matthew, after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary and the baby took up residence in Bethlehem for awhile. Matthew tells us that the wise men found the child not in a barn, but living, along with his parents, in a house.
Another indication that some time passed between Jesus' birth and the events of the first Epiphany is the order given by Herod after the wise men revealed the nature of their mission in Judea. He ordered the killing of all males two years of age and younger. (You can read Matthew's account of the first Epiphany here.) It was apparently thought that the birth could have happened that much earlier than the day when he personally spoke with the visiting magi.
On the church calendar, Epiphany comes at the end of the traditional, Twelve Days of Christmas. As the song of the same name reminds us, there was another tradition, particularly among Christians in the British Isles, of giving small gifts throughout this twelve-day period. (With five gold rings being an apparent favorite. I'm kidding.)
January 6 kicks off an entire season of the Church Year known as Epiphany. It runs until the beginning of the Lenten season. During Epiphany, the Gospel lessons recount the early manifestations of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. In other words, they look at key moments when Jesus was shown to be "the Light of the world." Through Jesus, the pure, undefiled Light of God shines on the human race.
The Sundays that fall within the Epiphany Season are bracketed by two events in which the light of heaven shines in particularly notable ways:
- This coming Sunday--and Saturday for those of us who have worship on that evening as well--the Gospel lesson will be about the Baptism of Our Lord. (This year, Mark 1:4-11, will be the account read in most churches. By the way, as Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out, while there are only two accounts of Jesus' birth and its attendant events--like the first Epiphany--in the New Testament, there are six accounts of His baptism.)
- On the last Sunday of the Epiphany Season, we will celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This remembers the time when Jesus, accompanied by His key disciples, Peter, James, and John, went up on a mountain and was transfigured before them, His appearance being dazzlingly pure, and Jesus was seen speaking with two Old Testament figures from centuries before, Moses and Elijah.
The events recounted in the Gospel lessons of the Epiphany Season make clear the legitimacy of Jesus' claim to be God, the very claim that caused the religious leaders of first-century Judea, the political leadership of the Roman Empire, represented by the governor, Pontius Pilate, and the masses from throughout the Mediterranean Basin gathered in Jerusalem on that fateful Passover weekend to want Him dead.
C.S. Lewis says that in the manifestations of His God-ness and the claims of Deity that Jesus makes about Himself, we are left with three choices:
- We may decide that He's a liar.
- We may conclude that He's a madman.
- We may decide that He's telling the truth.
[I mean for this piece to be a companion to the first two "passes" at considering this weekend's Bible lesson at our congregation. You can find them here and here.]