Epiphany is celebrated by many Christians around the world. When is Epiphany and what does it mean? What is Epiphany?
What is Epiphany?
Epiphany is a celebration of the arrival of wise men, also called magi, from the East who brought gifts to Baby Jesus.
What Does the Word “Epiphany” Mean?
The word “Epiphany” means an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.
When is Epiphany Celebrated?
For many Christians, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany is on January 6, after the 12 days of Christmas.
Epiphany is also called Three Kings Day.
How Many Kings Visited Baby Jesus?
While tradition holds that 3 kings came to visit Baby Jesus in the stable (and the kings are even given the names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar), the truth is probably quite different.
The wise men brought 3 gifts to Jesus which has led to the assumption that there were only 3 wise men, but in reality it was probably a larger group. (See below for the full Biblical account of the visit of the wise men.)
Were the Wise Men at the Stable on Christmas Night?
Another false assumption, made more popular by nativity sets everywhere, is that the wise men came to the stable the night Jesus was born.
In reality, the visit of the wise men most likely occurred later, at least 40 days after Jesus’ birth and possibly up to 2 years later. These men were traveling 800-900 miles to see Jesus, a long distance for that period of time. Likely the visit occurred 6 months to a year after Jesus’ birth.
What is the Star of Bethlehem?
A star led these wise men to Jesus.
Today we refer to this as the Star of Bethlehem. On the night Jesus was born, a bright star shone above where Jesus was located.
Who Were the Wise Men?
These men were not technically “kings” as we often refer to them. They were priests and scholars.
The term “magi” gives us information about the wise men. The Greek word used here refers to scholars likely from Persia in the specific priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. These scholars were astrologers, so it makes sense that they would have seen the miracle of the star above the place where Jesus was born.
Herod played an important role in this situation, too. This is Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Studies of Herod show that he was ruthless and paranoid tyrant. When the magi came to him inquiring of the child, Herod panicked. He ordered that all baby boys under the age of two be killed because he saw any future king as a threat.
Here is an excellent short video that gives an overview of Epiphany:
What Were the Gifts of the Wise Men to Baby Jesus?
The gifts brought by the wise men were expensive and significant gifts, and they bowed down and worshiped Jesus.
The gifts the wise men brought for Jesus were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not your typical onsies and baby blankets!
What is the meaning of the gifts brought by the wise men?
Bible teachers often assign these meanings to the gifts of the wise men:
- Gold – a gift of great worth, fit for a king
- Frankincense – a type of incense used during worship, this showed Jesus deity (Jesus is God.)
- Myrrh – the most unusual gift, this was used in ointment for embalming the dead, a symbol of the great sacrifice Jesus would make for us.
As meaningful as these explanations are, we don’t know for sure the reason behind why the magi brought these specific gifts. We do know that these were very expensive items which showed how much they honored Jesus.
These gifts were surely most welcome by Mary and Joseph, who were poor. We don’t know what was done with the gifts, but it’s possible they used the income to fund their trip to Egypt to escape from Herod’s order that all baby boys under the age of two years old be killed.
How Do I Celebrate Epiphany?
Epiphany is celebrated throughout the world in a variety of ways. Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, is especially commemorated in Spanish and Latin cultures.
In the Christian church in America, traditional churches honor Epiphany on January 6 and then as a season of the church year throughout the weeks until Lent begins.
One simple yet meaningful way to honor Epiphany in your home is to keep your Christmas decorations up until this day, which is the end to the Christmas season.
Three Kings Cake – An Epiphany Tradition
A friend of ours introduced us to the tradition of a Three Kings Cake. Made on Epiphany, the cake has a small plastic baby baked into the cake. The person who finds the baby in their piece of cake is then the person to bake the cake, or tamales, the following year.
In other traditions, Kings Cake is made at Mardi Gras.
Here is a very simple recipe for a quick cake using crescent rolls. (I make the simple version.) A traditional Kings’ Cake can also be purchased from a local Latin bakery during this time of year.
Check out this link with more information about how Epiphany is celebrated in other parts of the world.
What is the Bible Account of Epiphany?
Here is the Biblical account of the visit of the magi, as told in Matthew, the only one of the 4 gospels to include this aspect of the Nativity:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise mena] from the east came to Jerusalem,2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it roseb] and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Resources for Epiphany
King’s Cake recipe (Traditional)
King’s Cake recipe (Quick and Easy)
Epiphany devotions (online)
Epiphany devotions (book for families)
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Post updated January, 2019