When Christmas was Epiphany

The Lutheran Witness, under the new editorship of my former student Adriane Dorr, has gotten to be a really good magazine.  If you are one of the many former subscribers who stopped taking it, renew your subscription.  Anyway, a recent issue has an article on Epiphany that was quite an epiphany for me.  We had discussed the origins of Christmas.  Epiphany, it turns out, was celebrated long before Christmas in the church.  Actually, the birth of Christ was one of the “epiphanies,” or revelations of the Son of God, that the season celebrated.  From the article by Terence Maher:

Epiphany is a much older feast than Christmas, but it’s largely forgotten by most, lost in the shuffle by many, and celebrated by a few. Now how did that happen?

By the late fourth century, Epiphany was celebrated on Jan. 6. The earliest known reference dates from 361, and in those days the references indicate not just the appearance of the kings—epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”—but also the appearance or manifestation, the epiphany, of God, including His birth.

It’s not that there wasn’t Christmas. This is Christmas as well as a celebration of all the other events in the life of the young Jesus up to and including His Baptism and first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. In short, it’s a big day!

via The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod – The Lutheran Witness.

The article also says how Vatican II changed Epiphany into a moveable feast–one of those floating holidays–so that in the Church of Rome, there are no longer necessarily 12 days of Christmas!  (Would that  Roman Catholics would be more catholic in their practices!)  And other interesting and illuminating facts.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Larry

    This gives me an idea. We Christians are always put off and get down (rightly and wrongly) about Christmas being procured by the broader secular culture and encrusted or tacked onto by other religions and we say something like, “Let’s get Christ back into Christmas or “Jesus is the reason for the season’”, (not wrong sentiments and ideas in and of themselves). But I don’t think we’d ever leverage the pagan “glom on” this way.

    Let the wider secular world and others have and accrete onto “christmas” as it has become, let us have epiphany which includes CHRISTMAS as it is.

    However, if we “got back to” the season this way, epiphany, Christ’s baptism, etc…made it a Christian celebration season, a true celebration and feast time paralleling all the Good News and feast it IS – this would go a long way of accomplishing the goal and it would be Christian and Christ would be “back into Christmas” as it were.

  • Larry

    This gives me an idea. We Christians are always put off and get down (rightly and wrongly) about Christmas being procured by the broader secular culture and encrusted or tacked onto by other religions and we say something like, “Let’s get Christ back into Christmas or “Jesus is the reason for the season’”, (not wrong sentiments and ideas in and of themselves). But I don’t think we’d ever leverage the pagan “glom on” this way.

    Let the wider secular world and others have and accrete onto “christmas” as it has become, let us have epiphany which includes CHRISTMAS as it is.

    However, if we “got back to” the season this way, epiphany, Christ’s baptism, etc…made it a Christian celebration season, a true celebration and feast time paralleling all the Good News and feast it IS – this would go a long way of accomplishing the goal and it would be Christian and Christ would be “back into Christmas” as it were.

  • SKPeterson

    We talked about this back in Advent on the discussion thread regarding the supposed “pagan” origins of Christmas. Christmas became an extension of Epiphany gradually from about 350 to 500. It wasn’t uniformly adopted everywhere at once, but from what I’ve read it seems it was pretty much established, the dates of celebration firm and in place, in all of Christendom by 580.

  • SKPeterson

    We talked about this back in Advent on the discussion thread regarding the supposed “pagan” origins of Christmas. Christmas became an extension of Epiphany gradually from about 350 to 500. It wasn’t uniformly adopted everywhere at once, but from what I’ve read it seems it was pretty much established, the dates of celebration firm and in place, in all of Christendom by 580.

  • Dan Kempin

    I was completely unaware that the Vatican 2 had made the date of Epiphany moveable. Kudos to the lectionary committee for not mindlessly following this particular lead from Rome, as they have on so many other things. Epiphany is Jan. 6.

    And the Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday. It is not Passion Sunday. (Whatever the new lectionary might say.)*

    *This tweak is for LCMS members. Those outside may not get it.

  • Dan Kempin

    I was completely unaware that the Vatican 2 had made the date of Epiphany moveable. Kudos to the lectionary committee for not mindlessly following this particular lead from Rome, as they have on so many other things. Epiphany is Jan. 6.

    And the Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday. It is not Passion Sunday. (Whatever the new lectionary might say.)*

    *This tweak is for LCMS members. Those outside may not get it.

  • Joe

    My mother’s family was Eastern Rite Catholic (of the Ukrainian variety) Epiphany was always a bigger church holiday than Christmas with that side of the family. I beleive that is still the case with the Orthodox as well.

  • Joe

    My mother’s family was Eastern Rite Catholic (of the Ukrainian variety) Epiphany was always a bigger church holiday than Christmas with that side of the family. I beleive that is still the case with the Orthodox as well.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    This is news worthy? Just kidding. I remember having my boat rocked years ago when I learned that Christmas used to be a minor festival and that Epiphany and Easter were the biggies. I wonder to what purpose did they make Epiphany a movable date. I understand Easter and Ash Wednesday, but not Epiphany.

    The Orthodox have like a 5 hour service on Epiphany and yes it is still a really big deal. I have an acquaintance from CPE who is a Greek Orthodox priest.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    This is news worthy? Just kidding. I remember having my boat rocked years ago when I learned that Christmas used to be a minor festival and that Epiphany and Easter were the biggies. I wonder to what purpose did they make Epiphany a movable date. I understand Easter and Ash Wednesday, but not Epiphany.

    The Orthodox have like a 5 hour service on Epiphany and yes it is still a really big deal. I have an acquaintance from CPE who is a Greek Orthodox priest.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Not entirely relevant to the topic of Epiphany, but did anyone else find this statement from the article a bit odd?

    It is the custom of the Church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life (his death).

    The author is saying that we are born “to eternal life” only when we die physically. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that we are born “to eternal life” at baptism (well, for many/most of us, at least)? I understand the desire to make a parallel in that sentence, but I think it ends up being misleading.

    Anyhow, Vatican II, eh? That’s bizarre.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Not entirely relevant to the topic of Epiphany, but did anyone else find this statement from the article a bit odd?

    It is the custom of the Church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life (his death).

    The author is saying that we are born “to eternal life” only when we die physically. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that we are born “to eternal life” at baptism (well, for many/most of us, at least)? I understand the desire to make a parallel in that sentence, but I think it ends up being misleading.

    Anyhow, Vatican II, eh? That’s bizarre.

  • JonSLC

    tODD @ 6,

    His phrase might be an allusion to the old prayer, I think by Francis of Assisi, which concludes, “for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” (You can find the prayer in your Christian Worship hymnal, page 138.) So it likely is poetic parallelism that gave birth (sorry) to the phrase. But, I agree, it can be confusing. I recall someone I know once raising the same concern.

  • JonSLC

    tODD @ 6,

    His phrase might be an allusion to the old prayer, I think by Francis of Assisi, which concludes, “for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” (You can find the prayer in your Christian Worship hymnal, page 138.) So it likely is poetic parallelism that gave birth (sorry) to the phrase. But, I agree, it can be confusing. I recall someone I know once raising the same concern.

  • Joe

    JonSLC – the death referred to by Assisi (I beleive) is the death of the old man in baptism – not the death at the end of earthly life.

    tODD – great point, I encourage everyone to celebrate their baptismal birthdays. It is way more important the other birthday.

  • Joe

    JonSLC – the death referred to by Assisi (I beleive) is the death of the old man in baptism – not the death at the end of earthly life.

    tODD – great point, I encourage everyone to celebrate their baptismal birthdays. It is way more important the other birthday.

  • Rob C.

    As one of your Catholic readers, please allow me to weigh in on the change of the date of Epiphany.

    The change was not proposed at the Second Vatican Council. Following the Council, in 1970 the Latin Catholic Ordo & Proper of Seasons/Saints was revised.

    In that revision, Epiphany continued to be celebrated on January 6 for diocese where the feast is a Holy Day of Obligation. A provision was made for diocese that do not make it a Holy Day of Obligation to translate the feast to the first Sunday after January 1.

    I am not a fan of the revision, and regard it as a needless concession to the demands of the present time. Indeed, those Catholic groups that follow the traditional calendar of the Extraordinary Form (what you might know as the Tridentine or “old Latin” calendar) continue to observe the feast on January 6th.

    The change destroyed the well-founded tradition like the Twelve Days of Christmas and replaced it was a “Not Necessarily Twelve Days of Christmas”.

    Don’t get me started on “Ascension Thursday Not on Ascension Thursday”.

  • Rob C.

    As one of your Catholic readers, please allow me to weigh in on the change of the date of Epiphany.

    The change was not proposed at the Second Vatican Council. Following the Council, in 1970 the Latin Catholic Ordo & Proper of Seasons/Saints was revised.

    In that revision, Epiphany continued to be celebrated on January 6 for diocese where the feast is a Holy Day of Obligation. A provision was made for diocese that do not make it a Holy Day of Obligation to translate the feast to the first Sunday after January 1.

    I am not a fan of the revision, and regard it as a needless concession to the demands of the present time. Indeed, those Catholic groups that follow the traditional calendar of the Extraordinary Form (what you might know as the Tridentine or “old Latin” calendar) continue to observe the feast on January 6th.

    The change destroyed the well-founded tradition like the Twelve Days of Christmas and replaced it was a “Not Necessarily Twelve Days of Christmas”.

    Don’t get me started on “Ascension Thursday Not on Ascension Thursday”.


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