Epiphany 2018

Happy Epiphany! Now that I’ve given you the greeting, I do have to confess that we don’t make much of a celebration of the holiday here in the United States. We have had a few fun family nights to recognize Epiphany in our church, but for the most part, in the popular culture, holiday celebrations have ended around the country. New Year’s Day is the end of our holiday season when it comes to most schools and businesses.

There are quite a few fun Epiphany Day traditions around the world. Children in Italy are delighting today in finding stockings filled with sweets and treats. I don’t know the history of the tradition, but local stories tell of Befana, an old lady who is a kind of trickster. Befana is pictured with missing teeth and jeering eyes. The legend is that she gives candy to good children and coal, or sometimes garlic to those who have been naughty. In Rome you can buy multi-colored statuettes of Befana. Italians place them on a high shelf in their home.

In Quebec and many other places, there is a tradition of gâteau des rois, or king cake. It is a golden cake with flaky layers and a rich frangipane filling. In Latin American cities they call it 3 kings cake called rosca de reyes and the recipe is different. Inside there is a little figurine of a baby, to represent Jesus. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby inside of it is obligated to throw a party on February 2, dia de la Candelaria. Rosca is often dipped into hot chocolate when eaten.

The dutch celebrate by blowing horns and noise makers.

Many Epiphany traditions focus on the eve of Epiphany - last night - the twelfth night, marking the end of 12 days of Christmas. It is the traditional day to take down the Christmas tree and store Christmas decorations. Community bonfires to burn old Christmas trees and greenery are also traditional in some places.

The two sides of the Great Schism, Eastern and Western Christianity have different calendars when it comes to the major holidays. In the Eastern Church, Christmas Eve falls on January 6 and Epiphany comes on January 19. Many Russian Orthodox churches have a tradition of taking a plunge into icy waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. The Bible makes no mention of having to break a hole in the ice with axes in order to take a dip, but that is the tradition in parts of the north.

Christmas is a newer celebration in the church, arising in the third century and it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas was seen as a more important holiday than Epiphany. Many of the gift-giving traditions of Christmas originally started as Epiphany celebrations and later were moved and adapted to Christmas.

It makes sense, then that we take a look at the meaning of this festival day. The word Epiphany comes from Greek and means a manifestation of the divine. It can also carry a sense of surprises and wonder. Sometimes the word is used to describe a sudden revelation. The tradition is that the magi, mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel arrived to worship the infant Jesus and brought gifts with them. Because they were scholars from far away, it is also the tradition that these visitors were not members of the Jewish community. This visit becomes important during the early centuries of the church because there was an active debate about whether the messiah was the savior of all people or just the savior of faithful Jews. This debate has long since been forgotten in the dominant conclusion that Jesus comes to Jew and Gentile alike, but this was not always the case. The fact that the story of gentile visitors from far away coming to the Christ child appears in only one Gospel attests to the fact that it was deemed more important in some parts of the early church than in others.

Maybe we’ve long held mixed feelings about Epiphany.

In our church, the Sunday after the day of Epiphany is recognized as Baptism of Christ. Generally, unless Epiphany day lands on a Sunday we probably give more recognition to the Baptism of Christ than to Epiphany. Baptism is seen as a uniting sacrament in the church. We all share in the same baptism as Christ and by sharing in that baptism we also share in Christ’s resurrection. The symbolic gesture of placing water on the forehead or immersing one in water is the mark of entrance into the Christian community. Some years we have a formal baptism remembrance ceremony as part of our recognition of the Baptism of Christ. We also have baptismal remembrance as part of the Great Vigil of Easter, the first celebration of Easter at the end of Holy Week.

Like other Christian holidays, Epiphany has some modern expressions that probably come from traditions that existed before Christianity. Christmas greenery is one of those traditions. Although Christmas trees are now seen as expressions of Christian faith, it is likely that bringing evergreen boughs into homes was a practice in northern climates that is older than Christianity itself. The church has long adapted celebrations and activities from other cultures as it grows and spreads.

However you recognize the festival, there is value in keeping the celebrations of the season going for an extended period. The joy of Christmas - the miracle of spirit infusing the material - is more than just a single day’s event. It is a reality that continues every day and is a part of every life that is aware of our connections to that which is beyond. A dozen days of celebration is, in a way, insufficient for the depth of the revelation we have received.

So I greet you with a hearty “Happy Epiphany!” and I pray that you will experience good health, joy and love in the year to come.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!