All About The Epiphany (6 th January 2009)

Epiphany History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions, & More


Epiphany Definition and Summary

The Epiphany, called Theophany in the Eastern Churches, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. Prayers: Epiphany Prayers

Basic Facts

Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday:
Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation
Time of Year: January 6
Duration: One Day (or an entire
octave in older custom)
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; Visit of the Magi (West); Christ’s baptism (East)
Alternate Names: Theophany, Holy Lights, King’s Feast
Scriptural References: Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:13-17


Officially called “The Epiphany of the Lord,” this feast celebrates the epiphany (manifestation) of Christ to the Gentiles, symbolized by Christ’s manifestation to the Magi (Wise Men). The feast originally was more closely connected to Jesus’ baptism, the primary theme of the feast in Eastern Churches to this day. In addition, other manifestations of Christ were often commemorated during Epiphany, including the miracle at Cana. In fact, it has been asserted that the Baptism of the Lord, the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Magi, and the miracle at Cana all historically occurred on January 6 (see Abbot Gueranger’s works). Whether this is true is contested, but either way, the Epiphany solemnity is celebrated on January 6, which falls within Christmastide. In some Catholic regions, the feast is translated to a Sunday. The Eastern Churches often call the holiday Theophany, which means “manifestation of God.” Eastern Christians also refer to the Epiphany as “Holy Lights” because they baptize on this day, and baptism brings about illumination. Traditionally, Epiphany marked the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The story of the Magi traveling from the East to see the Christ child appears only in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The word Magi, in Greek magoi, comes from the Latin word meaning “sage.” These particular sages were possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia. Upon seeing a star rising in the East (the Star of Bethlehem), they realized it was a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107), the star shone with an inexpressible brilliance, and the sun, moon, and other stars all formed a chorus around the special star (Letter to the Ephesians, 19). The wise men followed the star to Bethlehem of Judea, and to Jesus’ dwelling there. Having arrived, they worshipped the infant Jesus, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There have been numerous traditions that have grown up about the Wise Men. Typically we think of there being three wise men because of the number of gifts, but Matthew doesn’t tell us the exact number. Since the 3rd century, Christian writers have referred to them as kings, even though Matthew doesn’t specifically tell us that they were royalty. Their names in the West, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar date to the 6th century. The names mean: Master-of-Treasure, King, and Protect-the-King, respectively. The Syrian Church has given them the following Persian names: Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph.

St. Bede the Venerable fills in a few gaps, providing colorful details about the Magi:

The first was called Melchior. He was an old man, with white hair and a long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his King. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was middle-aged and called Balthasar. The myrrh he held in his hand prefigured the death of the son of Man (see The Catholic Source Book).

Legend also has St. Thomas the Apostle visiting the Magi, and after catechizing them, initiating them into the Christian faith. Eventually the Wise Men were ordained priests and then bishops. Near the end of their lives, the Christmas Star revisited them, this time bringing them together for a reunion. The information provided by Bede, and this legend, are interesting but historically suspect.


Epiphany is an ancient feast, dating to the 3rd century in the East. In the East, the Epiphany feast pre-dates the Christmas feast, although the West knew of the Nativity Feast before the Epiphany feast. Originally the Epiphany celebrated the Baptism of Christ. The birth of Christ was often tied to the Epiphany. The Church in Jerusalem celebrated Christ’s Nativity on January 6 until AD 549. St. Epiphanius (d. AD 403) also lists the Epiphany as the date of the celebration of Christ’s birth. However, the Apostolic Constitutions (c AD 380) mandates the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th, and his Epiphany on January 6 (see Book V:III:XIII). In the Armenian Church today, January 6 is the only day celebrating Christ’s Incarnation. The Epiphany feast was introduced in the Western Church by the 4th century, but the connection between the feast and Christ’s baptism was gradually lost. The Western observance of the feast soon became associated with the visit of the Wise Men. In the West, the Feast of Jesus’ baptism is a separate holy day, and currently falls on the Sunday following Epiphany. In the East, the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany gradually became two distinct feasts.

Various customs have developed around Epiphany. In the East, there is a solemn blessing of water. In the West, in the Middle Ages, houses were blessed on Epiphany. Holy water was sprinkled in each room. The whole family was involved. The father led the procession with a shovel of charcoal on which he burned incense and the oldest son had the bowl of holy water. The rest of the family followed along saying the rosary and/or singing hymns. While the father and oldest son were incensing and blessing the house, the youngest child carried a plate of chalk. The chalk had been blessed with a special blessing after morning Mass. The father took the blessed chalk and wrote over every room that led outside: 20 + C + M + B + 08 which stands for “Anno Domini 2008 — Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar” and means “The three Holy Kings, Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, in the year of Our Lord, 2008” or whatever the year may be. The letters C, M, and B are also thought to stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning “Christ bless this home.” This tradition of blessing the doorways symbolizes the family’s commitment to welcome Christ into their homes on a daily basis through the year.

Today many Christians celebrate Epiphany, including Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists. However, many Christians have yet to be introduced to the Epiphany feast, as it falls in the empty space between Christmas and Easter that exists in many non-Catholic churches.


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