Epiphany was first observed in second-century Egypt, as both the day of Jesus’ birth and baptism. December 25 wasn’t established as a separate celebration of the nativity until around A.D. 336 and has never been universally celebrated on that day. Today some Eastern churches still observe Christmas on January 6, the day of Epiphany.
The Wise Men, originally recognized at Epiphany, have gotten mixed up with the shepherds, the angels, the stable, and the manger of Christmas. It is time we reclaimed Epiphany as a separate celebration with a meaning and significance all its own.
The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” “showing,” or, less literally, “a moment of recognition.” Epiphany celebrates God’s manifestation of Jesus in three ways.
First, Epiphany celebrates the fact that Jesus came to all people. The story most often associated with Epiphany is that of Wise Men from the East following the star as it led them to Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Foreigners bowing before the new king show that God offers the Messiah to the whole world, not to just one race or nation.
The second manifestation showed Jesus’ divinity. After his baptism by John in the Jordan River, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. Then a voice came from heaven proclaiming him as God’s Son (Matt. 3:16-17).
Finally, Jesus’ power was manifested at the wedding feast in Cana. It was here that he performed his first public miracle, changing water into wine.
These three events–the Magi’s visit, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana–are traditionally associated with January 6. Although all three moments of recognition are observed on Epiphany, the majority of customs associated with the holiday in the Western world relate to the “Three Kings.”
The biblical account does not offer many details about the foreigners or their visit. Much of what we think we know is based in tradition, not Scripture. Legend has fleshed out the visitors by giving them names, homelands, and even experiences on their journey, both before and after their encounter with Jesus.
If we are to reclaim Epiphany, the first step will be to get the facts straight as Matthew tells them. Reread the story with a careful eye and realize that the Gospel does not put the visit of the Wise Men at the stable but at a house. Most scholars attest that the visitors arrived in Bethlehem as much as two years after Jesus’ birth, according to the biblical account (Matt. 2:16).
Thanks be to God that Jesus was made manifest to us Gentiles!
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:27-30 ESV)