Epiphany: What Do We Celebrate?

As someone who grew up in a "so-called nonliturgical church, I was confused by my first encounter with the church calendar. I was accustomed to celebrating Easter and Christmas. But Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Septuagesima, and Whitsunday all sounded foreign to me-a proliferation of festivals that could only serve, I thought, to distract believers from the essence of the faith. However, as I became familiar with the church year, I discovered that my initial reaction was wrong. I found that, rather than turning me away from Christ, using the lectionary and celebrating all the holy days focused my attention on Christ's ministry in a fresh way.

One of the traditional church festivals that I understood least was Epiphany. I once expressed my confusion and displeasure about this festival to an Anglican brother in this way: "Why make such a fuss over the wise men?" His answer helped me understand that Epiphany is not just "fuss over wise men," that this Christian festival has a long and fascinating history worthy of study for its own sake. But more importantly, I learned that celebrating Epiphany can help us appreciate more fully the meaning of Christ's birth and help us rediscover what worshiping Christ means.

A Brief History of Epiphany

The modern church in the West celebrates Epiphany on January 6, the same date on which the Byzantine and Roman churches celebrated Christ's nativity and baptism. The change occurred in the fourth century, when church officials moved the Feast of the Nativity to December 25, possibly because they wanted a Christian festival to compete with the pagan festivals honoring the sun god.

In the modern church Epiphany recalls all the manifestations of Jesus as the Christ. Although the primary emphasis of the festival is still on Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles in the persons of the magi, readings for the season include the narratives about Christ in the temple as a boy, his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, his baptism, as well as other passages that emphasize the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

Why Celebrate Epiphany?

As I reflect on the history and meaning of Epiphany, I find that the festival helps me understand God's work of redemption as I have not understood it before. Epiphany seems particularly appropriate for a gentile church. It reminds us that God in Christ did something quite remarkable: he extended his grace to those who were originally outside the covenant. As Paul reminds the Ephesians, we were aliens and strangers, but God has made us part of the new Israel.

Since the church has been primarily a gentile organization for centuries, we tend to forget that at first the notion of gentile converts shocked the early Christians. Peter, for example, needed a vision from God to convince him that the Messiah was for all nations, not just for Israel. And the church had to convene a major council to decide just what to doabout the gentile converts.

Celebrating Epiphany, then, should help us understand the grace of God, who has seen fit to include those of us-who for centuries seemed to be excluded from the plan for salvationamong the chosen people.

Epiphany also focuses our attention on the magi's response to Christ's revelation. They worshiped him and presented him with rich gifts. They recognized that they were in the presence of the King of the Jews, and they responded appropriately. On Epiphany we are reminded that we must do the same. We need to worship Christ as King by presenting ourselves as gifts to him. Such an action seems particularly appropriate for Reformed people. As stewards of God's gifts, we return to God what is rightfully his.

The celebration of Christmas remindsus of God's gift to us in Christ. Within the cycle of the church year, Epiphany, the festival that follows, reminds us ol the appropriate response: we give back to God. We recognize who Christ is and what he is worth; so we respond with worship that includes an offering oi our entire being.

When we consider Epiphany IS a natural counterpart of Christnas, we should be struck by the :ontrast between the ways in vhich the shepherds and the nagi learned of Christ's birth. In he Christmas narrative, God regeals the news supernaturally. angels suddenly appear in the light sky, telling the shepherds .hat the Savior has been born. The revelation to the magi is luite different, involving the natural universe rather than the supernatural. The magi see a star or planet they cannot account for, and they infer that some signifiant figure has been born. Their discovery of Christ seems in certain ways a natural outgrowth of their vocation-which the revelation to the shepherds definitely is not. When viewed in this light, Epiphany reminds us to look for the work of God in our natural everyday lives. It keeps us from dividing our lives into spiritual and natural realms-a tendency even Reformed people can fall into.

How Can We Celebrate Epiphany?

If we agree that Epiphany is worth celebrating, that it helps us better understand God's redemptive acts and respond to his grace, we will he eager to organize meaningful Epiphany services. I would like to suggest two ways to commemorate Epiphany. First, since Epiphany stresses the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, this season (as A. Hoksbergen suggests in RW 1) is an appropriate time to emphasize evangelism. Many churches have an annual missions conference. Rather than scheduling this important event haphazardly, why not place it within the cycle of the church year, making it a natural response to God's revelation of himself to us in Christ? We respond to God's rift and revelation by offering the rospel to other "aliens" and "strangers."

Second, we can take our clue from the magiandemphasize the giving of gifts to God. Perhaps a worship service during Epiphany season could include a ceremony in which each member of the congregation brings a symbolic offering of his or her vocation to God. I can think of few more striking ways to remind ourselves that the best fruits of our efforts in every area of life belong to God.

Certainly these two suggestions don't exhaust the possibilities for celebrating Epiphany. But I hope they will stimulate worship leaders to consider making an Epiphany celebration (or the entire season) a part of their church's cycle of worship. Is there a holy day that more clearly brings to mind God's act of redemption on our behalf and our response to his grace?


Epiphany—Day or Season?

The custom of celebrating Epiphany on the sixth of January is an old tradition in many church communions, adate most Christians agree on. There is less unanimity on what to call the weeks after Epiphany until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

The Roman Catholic Church usually calls this period "Ordinary Time," after the ordinary (unvarying) pans of the Mass. Other traditions refer to this period as "Sundays after Epiphany" (so the Common Lectionary) the "Epiphany season." No matter what a group calls the season, however, the central focus of Christ's manifestation to the world through his life and ministry is common to all.

Reformed Worship 5 © September 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.