Epiphany/Theophany: Western, Eastern Christians hail manifestation of the Son

MONDAY, JANUARY 6: Once eclipsing Christmas, millions of Christians today celebrate Epiphany, or Theophany. Both terms are Greek in origin: the first, meaning “manifestation,” and the second, “vision of God.” For Western Christians, Epiphany focuses on the visitation of Magi; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Theophany highlights the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Across Christianity, today’s celebration realizes the revelation of God in Jesus.


In many Catholic homes—and Italian Catholic homes, in particular—children are told that the Magi “visit” their home on Twelfth Night, leaving behind small gifts. Traditionally, the Three Kings or Three Wise Men are not placed near the crèche, or manger, until Twelfth Night or Epiphany, and gold candles and deep purple cloth adorn the scene.

Did you know? The gifts of the Magi bear symbolism: Gold is a sign of kingship, frankincense is a sign of a deity and myrrh is a sign of the death of Jesus.

The astrological event behind a famed Star of Bethlehem has been highly debated throughout history: St. Ignatius of Antioch (CE 50-100) insisted it was a miraculous event, such as the pillar of fire in Numbers 13:21. Others believe it was a comet or a conjunction of planets, and St. Augustine (b. 354 CE) held it as a natural occurrence.


The third greatest feast of liturgical year, Theophany is a Trinitarian feast: or, in other words, a celebration of the times when all three persons of the Trinity manifested themselves, simultaneously, to humanity. The Forefeast of Theophany began Jan. 1; an eight-day Afterfeast follows the holiday. Russian Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar mark Theophany on the Gregorian Jan. 19, while Greek Orthodox Christians observe Theophany today. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

Perhaps the most notable element of Theophany services is the Great Blessing of the Waters, for which the clergy and laypeople form a procession (with the cross) to the nearest body of water. The priest blesses the waters and, in some practices, throws the cross into the water. Laypersons often jump into the water in a competition to retrieve the cross, and the winner receives a special blessing. Other laypersons gather the blessed water in containers, for drinking and sprinkling around the home.


The term “theophany” is used in almost every major world religion, as the manifestation of a deity to a worshipper. In Christianity, Epiphany / Theophany has been fixed on Jan. 6 from the earliest centuries.

Did you know? In Poland, Communists banned the celebration of Epiphany; it was reinstated in 2011 with the revolutions that swept eastern Europe.

In Argentina, the faithful dine on a ring-shaped Epiphany cake on Dia de los Reyes (Day of the Kings), and put away Christmas decorations; the French eat a galette des Rois (pastry filled with almond cream) with a bean hidden inside; in Mexico, the Magi are added to the nativity scene on Epiphany Eve. (The UK’s The Telegraph has a photo slideshow of events worldwide.) Across Bulgaria, hundreds plunge into icy waters to retrieve a cast cross and perform a lengthy “men’s dance”;in Kosovo, Serbs chopp Oak branches to decorate their homes; in Louisiana and other regions of the U.S., Epiphany ushers in Carnival season. (USA Today reported, in 2012.)


Bake Epiphany Bread and King’s Cake, with recipes at Catholic Culture.

Revive the prayerful chalk-and-water custom of Epiphany, with instructions at Catholic Culture.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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