What Is Epiphany Anyway? Shedding light on the least understood part of the Church Year

I was reading the paper the other day and ran across the line, "That was a real epiphany for me!" No, it wasn't in a church publication; it was the daily paper. And the context made it clear that the author meant something like, "It was a real eye-opener!" But it got me thinking: What is an epiphany anyway? How did a word with such a focused doctrinal Christian meaning come to be used this way in everyday speech?

The reporter had the right idea. Epiphany means "manifestation" or "revelation." It is a biblical word: "The grace of God has appeared (epephane) bringing salvation to all, ... the manifestation (epiphaneia) of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:11, 13). The early church used this word to refer to the incarnation, to God's self-manifestation in Jesus Christ: "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory...." John 1:14).

Epiphany is the shepherds recognizing the Messiah. It is the Magi acknowledging the king of glory. It is Peter's "You are the Christ...." It is the two disciples on the way to Emmaus having their eyes opened. It is any time that our eyes are opened to the manifestation of God in our Savior, Jesus Christ.

In fact, we can say that the experience of Epiphany is the most important goal of Christian teaching or preaching. It is the moment when Christ is perceived by the eyes of faith.

Incarnation and Redemption

The early church had festivals to celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection: Pascha (or Passover) and Pentecost. But they had no festival into which the incarnation would fit. Passover and Pentecost were festivals around which a whole theology of redemption was worked out by the apostle Paul, by other New Testament writers, and by theologians ever since. Passover was an event looking for a deeper theology, the theology of redemption.

But this theology of incarnation, of God's reaching out to the Jews and even to Gentiles, was a theology looking for an event. It had no festival or celebration. And it took the church more than three hundred years to develop the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany as opportunities to focus on this emphasis. In the West, Christmas was the dominant festival, in the East, Epiphany. But by the year 400 both East and West observed both Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6).

Certain themes have gathered around these two festivals. Christmas focuses on the birth of Jesus, child of Mary, in Bethlehem—on the Word becoming flesh. Epiphany focuses on Or preaching. It is the the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, depending in particular on the accounts of Jesus' baptism, the visit of the Magi, and Jesus' first "sign" at the wedding in Cana. The baptism of Jesus clearly manifests the Trinity: the Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice from heaven reveals, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). The Magi, non-Jews, demonstrate that Gentiles too may be counted as members of God's people. And the miracle at Cana, says John's gospel, reveals Jesus' glory (John 2:11).

Epiphany—Season or Day?

For years—in fact for centuries—Epiphany was considered a festival that ushered in a season of the Christian year, the Epiphany season. More recently people have seen the festival as the conclusion of the Christmas cycle, with the Sundays after Epiphany called "Ordinary Time." Ordinary Time is meant to convey that there is no particular seasonal theme or focus as there is Christmas-Epiphany during Advent-or Lent-Easter-Pentecost.

However, one could say that the Sundays after Epiphany, just like the Sundays after Pentecost, are for working out the incarnation and redemption themes we find in Scripture surrounding Christmas and Easter. This is a special task; it is not ordinary at all. That's why some have called the Sundays after Epiphany "the work of Epiphany."

Most of us recognize this seasonal focus. Many of our churches have their mission emphasis Sunday or mission festivals during these weeks. And a number of congregations focus their evangelism programs in this period, planning for the receiving and baptizing of new members during Lent. This is a unique time for us to do the work of Christmas and Epiphany by giving attention to the call to spread the good news of the gospel, to reach out to others as God has reached out to us.

If we follow the lectionary, which is based on what churches and ministers did in the early days of the church, we find an emphasis during this part of the year on Jesus' earliest ministry to the Gentiles in Galilee, on the choosing and sending out of disciples ("henceforth you will be catching people"), and on Jesus' teaching and healing ministry. Also included in the focus of these weeks are other outreach themes: "you are the light of the world"; "love your enemies"; "repent and believe the gospel"; "seek first the kingdom of God." Interestingly, on the last Sunday before Lent, the lectionary has the account of the transfiguration of Jesus, with its repetition of the revelation of the Trinity, akin to that at Jesus' baptism: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.Listen to him!" (Matt. 17:5). Broadly conceived, the lectionary too seems to focus on Jesus and the disciples doing the work of Christmas and Epiphany and on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Open-Eyed and Mission Minded

Epiphany, then, has a dual focus. The first is personal: Epiphany must be as personal for us as it was for the two Emmaus disciples. Epiphany will never come to fruition for me until my eyes are opened and I catch the glimpse of who Jesus really is and accept that reality for my life. I must have my eyes opened again and again to live out my baptism more fully (dying daily to sin and rising daily to new life in Jesus Christ, Romans 6).

Second, Epiphany reminds us that as a church we have a mission. We have the work of Christmas and Epiphany to do. Whether we celebrate Epiphany only as a festival day or as a complete season, it must be worked out in our everyday life. Even as God reached out to us, revealing to us the truth of the gospel, so we must be God's arms and hands, reaching out to others, to the very ends of the world, that Christ might be manifested to them as well.

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Arlo D. Duba is professor of worship (emeritus) and former dean of the theological faculty, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.