The English word epiphany comes from the Greek epipháneia, which means manifestation or appearance. The original Greek word, however, carried other meanings, such as dawn, or the sudden appearance of an enemy in war, but most especially the appearance of a deity before its worshippers. Within the context of the liturgical year, the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as represented by the magi coming to adore the Infant Jesus.
But why do we celebrate this feast? Did we not just celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas? Is not His birth the true manifestation of Christ to the world? Why then do we need another feast? Why distinguish between His birth and His appearance to the Gentiles?
There are, of course, historical reasons for the distinction between the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany – but such historical reasons can never penetrate the mystery of God as revealed in the Church’s liturgy. Therefore, any explanation of the distinction between Epiphany and Christmas must ultimately be theological, and not simply historical. What then is the theological reason for the distinction between Christmas and Epiphany?
If Christmas represents the objective aspect of Christ’s Incarnation, then Epiphany represents the subjective aspect. That is, at Christmas, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, was born to the Virgin Mary. His birth was a historical event that took place at a specific point in time. But though His birth in Bethlehem occurred objectively at a certain point in time, the world did not recognize His appearance. Thus, a further manifestation – an epipháneia – is required so that we might come to know Him personally. In other words, we all need to have our own little epiphany in order to encounter Christ.
Epiphany, then, represents this further manifestation. It is not good enough for Christ to be born only once in Bethlehem. He also must be born in each of our hearts. This further birth, this further manifestation of Christ, is the reason for Epiphany. If we do not allow Christ to appear us in the present moment, if we relegate His birth to Bethlehem, if we fail to approach Him in adoration, then Christmas is pointless. Thus, Epiphany is the completion of Christmas – it is Christmas moving from a historical event in the past, to becoming a present reality in our hearts. As we adore Jesus on this Feast of the Epiphany, let us pray that He would manifest Himself to us once again.
Ian Mahood – St. Joseph Seminary, Edmonton, Alberta