This Friday (January 6) is the Feast of the Epiphany. What does that mean?
Simply, this is the celebration of the revealing of the Christ Child to the Magi (the Wise Men). It symbolizes the revealing of the Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany is sometimes called Three Kings Day. In many European countries, the night before Epiphany is celebrated as Twelfth Night. The “12 Days of Christmas” refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany.
Dictionary.com says that epiphany can mean “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something [as in ‘Aha! I’ve had an epiphany!’], usually initiated by some simple, homely or commonplace occurrence or experience [like a baby born in a stable?]”
The Season of Light
Season of Epiphany is associated with the concept of Light, very welcome now at the darkest time of year. The Magi followed the light of a star to find Jesus, the Light of the world.
The Gospel according to John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.” (John 1:1-5)
John goes on to discuss John the Baptist. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:6-8).
The Season of Epiphany lasts only a few short weeks, ending with Mardi Gras (aka Shrove Tuesday). But it’s action packed! Here’s what happens in our Lectionary in the next few weeks (CAUTION: spoilers!).
Jan 7, Epiphany 1: Jesus is baptized.
Jan 14, Epiphany 2: Jesus begins to build His team.
Jan 21, Epiphany 3: Jesus recruits more disciples.
Jan 28, Epiphany 4: Jesus begins to get famous.
Feb 4, Epiphany 5: Jesus heals people, casts out demons and preaches in their synagogues.
Feb 11, Epiphany 6: Transfiguration – Peter, James and John witness Jesus being lifted up with Moses and Elijah. A voice from heaven identifies Jesus as “my Son, my Beloved.”
Feb 14: Ash Wednesday! Wow! Jesus' whole ministry in six episodes. That was fast!
Epiphany is celebrated all over the world.
In medieval and Tudor England, the period between Christmas and Epiphany was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night. A popular Twelfth Night tradition was to have a bean and a pea hidden inside a Twelfth-night cake; the man who finds the bean in his slice of cake and the lady who finds a pea in hers become King and Queen for the night. Twelfth Night parties continued with feasting and singing of Christmas carols. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. These celebrations could get quite rowdy.
The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night and throughout the Christmas season, especially in the UK, and door-to-door wassailing (similar to singing Christmas carols) was common until the 1950s.
Around the world, special pastries, such as the Tortell de Reis and King Cake, are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten for the Epiphany celebrations. In New Orleans, and across the southeastern US, Epiphany is celebrated with round King Cakes decorated with colored sugar served at parties that take place between Epiphany and Mardi Gras. The cakes contain a little figurine or token, and whoever finds it in their slice is responsible for making the King Cake the next year or hosting the next Mardi Gras party.
In Mexico they serve a sweet bread called Rosca de Reyes, decorated with candied fruit and shaped in a ring to resemble a crown. Inside there’s a little figure of baby Jesus hidden in the cake to represent the hiding of baby Jesus from King Herod.
In many European countries, Epiphany parades take place through the streets of towns and cities. Along with the Three Kings – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – the parades include figures of devils and angels.
In Spain, children generally receive presents from the Three Wise Men, rather than Santa Claus. They leave their shoes outside the door on the night before to be filled with gifts.
Much of Latin America celebrates Epiphany as Día de los Reyes, and it’s often given greater importance than Christmas. As in Spain, presents for the children arrive via the Magi, rather than Santa Claus, and children leave grass and water outside the door for the camels. There are big processions, such as the one in Lima, where the highlight is three policemen dressed as the Three Wise Men who ride on horseback through the streets.
Across Italy, it’s the broomstick-riding good-witch Befana who visits children on Epiphany, bringing sweets and presents. But only in Venice can you watch several suspiciously masculine-looking Befana witches rowing down the Grand Canal.
The Orthodox version of Epiphany celebrations involves diving into the icy water, such as the Golden Horn in Istanbul. Participants aim to retrieve a wooden crucifix that has been thrown in by the priest. It’s believed that catching the cross will bring health and prosperity. This tradition also takes place each year in the not-so-cold waters of Tampa Bay in Tarpon Springs, which has a large Greek community. It begins on January 5 with the blessing of the sponge and fishing fleets. The next morning a white dove is released to symbolize the Holy Spirit, and Holy Water is poured into the bayou. The archbishop casts the white Epiphany cross into the water where dozens of young men will dive for it. Whoever has the honor of retrieving it will kneel with the cross before the archbishop for a blessing.
Cold water is also a vital part of Russian Epiphany celebrations. It’s thought that on this day the water becomes holy and is imparted with certain powers. Across the country, people cut crucifix-shaped holes in frozen lakes. The water is blessed and then the participants take a dip, traditionally three times to signify the Holy Trinity. The custom has become so popular that some lakes have lifeguards on duty.
So, enjoy your Epiphany celebration and join us to celebrate the end of the Epiphany Season at our Mardi Gras party on Tuesday, February 13 @ 6:00 pm.