This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated by Christians all over the world, but at different times and commemorating different events in the life of Jesus. Different traditions emphasize the nativity of Jesus, the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, or Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. The major theme is the same though, the manifestation of Christ to the world. It is called Theophany in some Eastern churches meaning “divine manifestation” or “God shining forth.”
Traditions held for Epiphany, or Theophany, vary from country to country and between denominations or branches of Christianity. In areas where Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have had the most influence the celebration tends to revolve around gift giving, “king cakes”, taking down the greenery and nativity scenes from Christmas, and generally ending the Christmas season. In areas more influenced by the Orthodox Church, the celebrations tend to revolve around water, baptism and blessings.
One tradition from the Eastern Orthodox Church is celebrated at Theophany and is called the Great Blessing of Waters. After appropriate liturgy and singing, the congregation processes to the nearest body of water, preferably a natural body of water. There the priest blesses a cross and casts it into the water where enthusiastic swimmers try to retrieve it. The person who retrieves it receives a special blessing for themselves and their household. The congregants then kiss the cross and are blessed by the priest. In areas where the water is too frigid to swim in, the priest dips the cross into the water three times. The water which is blessed this way is considered special holy water. Congregants drink the water and during the subsequent weeks the priest will visit each home to bless it with this holy water.
Epiphany is marked as the same day in most places. January 6 is Epiphany in countries that use the Gregorian calendar and on January 19 in countries that use the older Julian calendar. These are the same day in most years. When Epiphany is actually celebrated varies. If not on the actual day of January 6, it can be celebrated the first Sunday after January 1 with the Baptism of the Lord celebrated the first Sunday after January 6. Some celebrate an 8 day feast.
Some fun traditions are celebrated for children, such as leaving their shoes by the door at night with water and grass for the wise men’s camels. The next morning they find a present (Argentina.) In some European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany, children process from door to door dressed as the wise men and carrying a paper star. They receive coins or sweets.
Because Epiphany is the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 through January 5), it is called Twelfth Night in England. There it is celebrated with wassail, folk plays, putting aside the charcoal from the Yule Log until next year, Twelfth Cake and other spicy foods. In many cultures, the Twelfth cake or King’s cake, has a bean or a plastic baby baked in it. The person who gets it is “king for the day.”
In the United States, there are many different types of celebration due to the diversity in Christian practice. Some long standing traditions are the Great Fruitcake Toss in Colorado, the beginning of Carnival in Louisiana, and the longest running and largest Feast Day of the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, Florida. In Tarpon Springs, the celebration is hosted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and attracts people from all over the US.
I thought about doing this post a little late, but in the United Methodist Church we consider the time between Epiphany on January 6 and Ash Wednesday to be the Epiphany Season. Each Sunday is marked as the First, Second (etc.) Sunday after Epiphany. There are no prescribed rituals, and celebrations vary from church to church, although the Lectionary does give specific scriptures for the Sunday before and after Epiphany as well as January 6. In other words, the season is not over.
The symbol for Epiphany is light. During this time, we move beyond celebrating the birth of Jesus to celebrating His manifestation in the world, the shining of His light on humankind. Jesus becomes known during this time, whether when the wise men found Him and returned to their countries with this knowledge, or when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and God descended upon Him, or when Jesus performed His first miracle at Cana. Jesus is revealed and casts His light on those around Him.
Jesus sheds light. The light can shine wherever we let it, in our hearts and out into the world. But darkness hates the light, so light and the gospel can attract enemies. After the wise men left, Jesus’ family had to flee to avoid Herod’s wrath. After Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of His ministry, He attracted followers, but also enemies. Sometimes we hesitate to let the light shine in our hearts. Sometimes we hesitate to let the light shine from us to others.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent the time when we contemplate Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the desert. The Epiphany Season is a time to prepare ourselves for that. To let the light shine in our hearts and open us up. To let the light shine from us extending grace to others. This is the time of year to take special notice of Jesus’ ministry and to contemplate what ours should be. What will the light reveal to us this year?
What do you do for Epiphany? Please share your ideas with us.