by Eric Bonetti
In secular usage, the word refers to a sudden flash of understanding, or awareness. In The Episcopal Church, as in other western churches, Epiphany refers to the feast of the visitation of the Magi, typically celebrated on the Sunday closest to January 6, or on January 6 itself.
But do we fully appreciate the significance of Epiphany? Is it something more than the hallmark of the last day of Christmastide, a minor feast tacked on to the greater celebration of the nativity?
I suspect that, all too often, we do fail to appreciate the full importance of Epiphany.
In Orthodoxy, the holiday is usually referred to as the Feast of the Theophany. Emphasizing the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity in his baptism, versus the manifestation of the Magi, the date may vary by 13 days, depending on whether the church follows the Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Tellingly, the Theophany Feast is considered one of the great feasts of Orthodoxy, third in rank only to Easter and Pentecost. Churches often have two Blessings of the Waters, once on the eve of the feast in the church’s baptismal font, and a second time, more splendidly, on the feast itself, when clergy bless the “living waters” of a nearby river or stream. The holy water is then carried to houses in the parish by clergy, who sprinkle it as an act of blessing.
Theophany is further celebrated by an eight-day after-feast, which touches on the circumcision and temptation of Christ, and provides a liturgical link to Lent.
In the western churches, Epiphany emphasizes less the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, and more the visit of the Magi. Traditionally, the priest blesses the Epiphany water, frankincense, chalk and gold. The chalk is then used to mark the letters, “C, M, B” over the doors of homes and churches, representing the traditional names of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These names correspond with the phrase, “Christus mansionem benedicat,” which is Latin for, “May Christ Bless This House.”
Historically, Epiphany also was the day when Roman Catholic priests announced the date of Easter to parishioners, who, lacking written calendars, might otherwise lose track of this great holy day. This tradition is, to this day, reflected in the Missal, which provides chants used to announce the coming date of Easter.
In today’s The Episcopal Church, Epiphany often is little more than the end of Christmas, a “holding pattern” until Lent and the run-up to the great celebration of Easter. Gone are the blessing of the waters, the blessing of homes within the parish, or the other great traditions that mark this feast day.
Yes, there often is reference to the Three Kings and, via hymnody, the miracle at Cana, but that is all too often it. If anything, the season serves as a welcome respite from the hectic weeks before Christmas–a time not of celebration, but of catching one’s breath and regrouping.
Yet, in Colonial Virginia, Anglicans considered Epiphany a propitious time for weddings, for rejoicing, dancing and celebration.
In my parish, there seems to be a trend towards the Colonial view of Epiphany. In recent years, couples increasingly marry in the days between Christmas and Epiphany, when the church is resplendent with banks of poinsettias, evergreens, and dozens and dozens of candles, glorious against the massive stonework of the church. On these days, the cold winds may howl outside the church, but inside the wonderful sights and sounds of Christmas offer warmth and hospitality.
But what about Epiphany as a feast with personal meaning? What does it mean to us as Christians, and Episcopalians?
For me, Epiphany represents both the glory of Christmas, and something unique in the liturgical calendar, namely the first time we see people proactively respond to the Gospel message.
True, Mary and Joseph, when confronted with the unsettling news of the virgin birth, go along. But one gets that sense that the virgin birth is an event that sort of plops down, unexpectedly, into the lives of the Holy Family, who respond by saying, “Uh, okay….if you say so….I guess.”
Yet in the Epiphany, we see something surprising, almost shocking. The magi — perhaps three, perhaps more or less — witness something astonishing, compelling. A star appears in the sky, and they somehow know that it presages an event of staggering importance.
At a time when travel is tedious and often dangerous, the Magi set off, unsure of where exactly they are going, why they are going, how they will get there, or even what they will do when they get there. Yet they know something wonderful and splendid is happening, and they honor that magnificent event, both through their actions, and through their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It is this response to the call of the divine that resonates for me–a willingness to set off for parts unknown, to accomplish goals unknown–and above all to hear and respond to the call of the divine. The Magi do this at considerable inconvenience and risk to themselves, and the seem to do so joyfully, not reluctantly.
How often do we really respond to the call of the divine? Do we bear the modern equivalent of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when we discern the divine in our lives? The Magi set off in wonderment, joy, and awe, yet we say we are too tired to go to church on Sunday. The comparisons are both extensive and telling, and humbling, too.
My hope is that we, much like the Magi will come to have the same hope, faith, and confidence in the divine when we see it at work in the world around us. Perhaps, if we reach this point, we will truly appreciate the majesty and awe of the great feast of Epiphany and celebrate it with the sense of awe and wonder experienced by the Magi.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.