To You, O Lord, all glory be for this Your blest epiphany; To God, whom all His hosts adore, and Holy Spirit evermore. (from an ancient Latin hymn for The Epiphany)
The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning “cause to bring light.” It was used to signify appearance, revealing, or coming into view. The Festival of The Epiphany is the revealing of the baby Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. We also use the term “epiphany” as a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way, as the magi did upon seeing the infant Jesus in connection to the star they observed.
Many in the Christian Church celebrate the Festival of The Epiphany on January 6th. The day is known in some cultures as The Three Kings Day and Little Christmas. One of the themes of Epiphany is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
The Gospel according to Matthew records, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . . And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
Why January 6? As with the date for Christmas, there are a few clues from ancient times that guided the Church to settle on The Feast of The Epiphany on January 6th.
January 6 follows immediately after the 12 days of Christmas. The eve of Epiphany, sometimes known as The Twelfth Night, became a time for Christians to chalk their doors, remove Christmas decorations, and prepare some special food dishes.
The ancient Church celebrated a number of significant events in the life of Jesus on January 6. This date was used before there was any designation of December 25th as a celebration of Jesus’ birth. The birth in Bethlehem, baptism, first miracle of changing water into wine, and the visit of the Magi were all themes of The Epiphany. This date has connections to the night of January 5th in Hellenistic Egypt when the birth of Aion was recognized with rituals of drawing water from the Nile River. The deity is associated with time, eternity, the afterlife, and the zodiac. Christians may have adopted the day to connect with events in the life of Jesus, especially his entrance into time from eternity.
Following the ancient custom of the Israelites on Passover, Christians marked the main door to their home with symbols written in chalk, such as 20 + C + M + B + 22 on the eve of January 6. The numbers at the beginning and end refer to the current calendar year. C, M, and B are the initials for the traditional names of the Magi; Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. C, M, and B can also stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, Latin for “May Christ bless this house.”
The evening was spent removing the Christmas decorations, which had been used since Advent began. Although some Christians continued to display decorations of Noel until Candlemas, the 40th day from Christmas, on February 2nd. [The meaning and purpose of that day will be discussed in a future column.]
Some cultures serve special cheeses and breads for Epiphany. Others prepare spicy dishes of lamb and pork. There are often bowls of blood oranges or tangerines on the table. It is customary in many countries to bake an Epiphany cake, or the Three Kings’ cake, with a bean or small trinket hidden inside. The one finding the surprise is named “King for the feast.” In Spain there is a cake called a 'Roscón' (meaning a ring-shaped roll). They are normally filled with cream or chocolate and are decorated with a paper crown. In Catalonia it's known as a Tortell or Gâteau des Rois and it is stuffed with marzipan. In France you might eat a 'Galette des Rois', a type of flat almond cake.
As the ancient hymn proclaims:
From God the Father, virgin-born, to us the only Son came down; by death the font to consecrate, the faithful to regenerate.
Beginning from his throne on high, in human flesh he came to die; creation by his death restored, and shed new joys of life abroad.
Glide on, O glorious Sun, and bring the gift of healing on your wing; to every dull and clouded sense the clearness of your light dispense.
Columnist John Kreutzwieser loves to research words and writes this weekly Word Wisdom column for Moose Jaw Express/MooseJawToday.com. He has an interest in the usage, origin, and relevance of words for society today. Greek and Latin form the basis of many words, with ancient Hebrew shedding light on word usage.
John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to email@example.com . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.