by Dr. David Lose
President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia
An epiphany is a revelation or awakening and comes from a Greek word that is translated most literally as a “revealing,” a manifestation of the divine. We use the word in everyday language to talk about a moment of deep insight or awareness when all the pieces fall together. In Christian use, Epiphany names the day, January 6th, when we celebrate that revelation that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
Of the whole world, actually, and that’s where the connection between Epiphany and the story of the three magi in Matthew comes. For while Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, Christians confess that through him God seeks to save the whole world, just as through Abraham God sought to bless the whole world. Matthew tells of three magi, or wandering astrologers– the ones we often call the “three kings” – coming from the East following a star of illumination to worship the newborn king, Jesus. This scene represents God’s inclusion of Gentiles into the promises made first to Israel.
The celebration of Epiphany has played a modest role in most Protestant circles, mostly denoting the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Some congregations still hold Epiphany parties and may share an “Epiphany cake” with a plastic baby Jesus figurine baked inside (whoever gets the piece of cake with Jesus is responsible for baking the cake the next year). But unless Epiphany falls on a Sunday, few Protestants give the day much attention.
In Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles, however, Epiphany is a major holiday, often considered a more important celebration of the revelation of the light that has come into the world and the Word made flesh than Christmas. Known variously as Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany, and El Dia de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day), the festival is the occasion for gift giving (rather than Christmas) in many Latin American countries, Greece, and Russia. In Orthodox traditions, the focus is more on the your Baptism of Jesus and one popular way of marking the day is by throwing a cross into the freezing waters of a river or lake and diving in to retrieve it.