What is Epiphany?
Epiphany is a Christian feast day celebrated on January 6 every year. It’s also known as “Three Kings’ Day.”
The Christian year begins with the season of Advent, which leads up to Christmas on December 25. Then come the 12 Days of Christmas (Dec. 25–Jan. 5), which lead to the feast of Epiphany on January 6.
Epiphany begins the season of “Epiphanytide” or “The Season after Epiphany.”
- Lasts until the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ on February 2 (40 days inclusive after Christmas, when, according to Leviticus 12:1–8, Mary would have to be ritually purified after childbirth). OR
- Goes until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Why is it called “Epiphany”?
“Epiphany” comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance.”
In 2 Timothy 1:9–10, the word is used to refer to the manifestation of Jesus Christ:
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (NIV).
In the context of the Church year, Epiphany refers to the appearance of Jesus Christ as the savior of the world—of Israel and the Gentiles.
For this reason, Epiphany is commonly associated with the visitation of the Magi (or “wise men”), who were almost certainly Gentiles, in Matthew 2:1–12.
The Church has long viewed the Magi finding Jesus (thanks to the leading light of a star) as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 60:1–3, particularly verse 3:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Note that, in addition to the coming of the Magi, Jesus’s baptism and his changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana are also commonly associated with Epiphany, especially in eastern churches. These are two other “manifestations” of Christ’s glory, and you will frequently find Scripture readings about the baptism of Jesus and his miracle at Cana assigned for Epiphany worship services.
Though the Season after Epiphany is one of two periods in the Church calendar known as “ordinary time,” there’s nothing unimportant or boring about it! During Epiphany we focus on “the mission of the Church to reach all the peoples of the earth, and the great gift of God’s grace in revealing healing truth and light to the world.”
What are some common practices during Epiphany?
First, Twelfth Night celebrations are rather common to mark the conclusion of the 12 Days of Christmas. This is time to sing Christmas carols, have one’s house blessed, and (often) to then take Christmas decorations down.
Second, there’s often some kind of special cake that goes along with Epiphany celebration. These are often called “King Cakes,” and they usually contain certain items (such as a miniature figurine of the baby Jesus) that give the finder certain privileges or obligations.