Christians in Utah and throughout the world will celebrate Epiphany this weekend, ending the liturgical calendar’s Twelve Days of Christmas, with rituals both sacred and personal.
But here is an epiphany about Epiphany: Long before there was a Christmas Day, Epiphany served as the ancient church’s counter to older pagan winter solstice rites.
“The tradition of keeping Jesus’ birthday came after the Epiphany had made its way onto the church calendar,” says the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. “Most historians put the ‘invention’ of Christmas Day in the fourth century.
“[It is placed] at the darkest time of the year, so Christ, the coming light, makes sense,” she adds. “Epiphany is, then, the time that light burst forth to all.”
Historians note that Christians were celebrating Epiphany (from the Greek “epiphaneia” or “shining forth”) as early as A.D. 200. It wasn’t until A.D. 320 that Rome’s Pope Sylvester decreed a separate “Christ’s Mass” on Dec. 25 to elevate Jesus’ birthday — though its true date remains disputed — as a singular event.
As cultural appropriations go, it was a direct, and eventually triumphant, challenge to the more ancient festival of Saturnalia. In the process, upstart Christmas borrowed gift-giving traditions and, to a less-ribald extent, the Romans’ propensity for merrymaking.
While Christmas today arguably has devolved into a holiday for retail materialism gone wild, Epiphany has survived as the more untainted and divine of Christian winter traditions.
For Nestler’s Episcopalians, as well as Roman Catholics, Lutherans and other Western churches still following the liturgical calendar, Epiphany celebrates the Magi, or the “wise men,” who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus from the East.
Scott Dodge, a deacon at Bountiful’s St. Olaf’s Catholic Church and a writer and educator for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, acknowledges that Epiphany once was of “far more significance than it is today for Roman Catholics.”
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made Epiphany a “movable feast,” no longer strictly tied to Jan. 6. Especially within the United States, Catholics since have celebrated the Epiphany Mass on the second Sunday after Christmas; this year it falls on Jan. 7.
“Apart from perhaps completing the Christmas crêche [Nativity scene] by including the Magi and their camels,” Dodge says, “in most [Catholic] churches and homes in the U.S., Epiphany tends to be a fairly low-key affair.”
For the Dodge family, Epiphany means a party with friends, albeit one incorporating several Catholic Epiphany traditions.
“We have a Kings’ Cake that contains three coins,” the deacon explains. “Whoever receives a coin in their piece of cake gets to wear a crown bearing one of the traditional names of the Magi — Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.”
Epiphany also is when the Dodge family removes its Christmas tree, a ceremony accompanied by carols and blessings on their home for the new year.
Episcopal Epiphany practices vary from parish to parish, Nestler says. In addition to a possible special Communion service, “many congregations will have festive dinners or candle-lighting, and the wise men will be brought on the final leg of their journey [to] the Nativity scene.”
Lutherans honor Epiphany for revealing “who the Christ child is, and why he has come into the world,” says the Rev. Tyler Peil, pastor of Taylorsville’s Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.
During Sunday’s services, Peil and his flock will hear the prophetic, messianic words of Isaiah 60:1: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
“Epiphany is part of our annual journey from the manger to the cross and on to Easter,” Peil says. “The weeks following the visit of the wise men bring us Jesus’ baptism, where he is announced to be the Son of God.”
To Eastern Orthodox Christians, it is that baptism — and scriptural accounts of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove over the dripping Jesus as a voice from heaven declares his divine heritage — that remains the heart of Epiphany.
Eastern Christians commemorate Epiphany, also called Theophany (Greek for a “visible manifestation of deity”), on Jan. 6 followed, on Jan. 7, by the Name Day, or Synaxis of St. John the Baptist, revered as the forerunner of Christ.
The Rev. George Nikas, dean of the Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in Salt Lake City and Prophet Elias Church in Holladay, says his ancient faith’s “blessing of the waters” rites, along with fasting beforehand, also set apart Orthodox Christians.
The water, generally blessed in a font inside the church, is then made available for anyone to drink, use in cooking, or sprinkle to bless homes and businesses, as well as to consecrate sacred objects.
“Tradition is that the waters of the Jordan reversed their course when Jesus was baptized,” Nikas explains. “It was not the River Jordan washing away [his] sins, but Christ himself sanctifying its waters, and by extension all of creation.”
Epiphany predates Christmas, all who celebrate it agree. And some may argue that, through the millennia, Epiphany better retains its spiritual origins, avoiding the inroads of holiday materialism that, in some ironic respects, seems a kind of 21st-century revival of Saturnalia.
Still, the message survives — regardless of the specific “real” dates for the Nativity, Magi visitations or immersion of a Nazarene rabbi by a wilderness river prophet.
“On Christmas, God appeared as a man, on Epiphany this man manifests himself as God to the world,” Pastor Peil says. “In this season of Epiphany, the Christmas gift is unwrapped.”