When did we start referring to Three Kings’ Day as Epiphany? I prefer Three Kings’ Day. It’s easier and it tells us what it is.
Three Kings’ Day may be easier but that does not make it correct. Let me reverse the question. When did we start referring to Epiphany as Three Kings’ Day? Today the Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession:
• the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, unless January 1 falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30;
• the solemnity of the Mother of God on January 1;
• the solemnity of the Epiphany, though originally celebrated on January 6, now mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8;
• and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany, unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day.
The most ancient of all these is the solemnity of the Epiphany with written evidence dating back to the end of the second century. By contrast the earliest known reference to the celebration of Christmas on December 25 is no older than 354 AD.
The word epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation. The feast of the Epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the theophany, theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God.
The original feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one:
• The first epiphany is the announcement to the shepherds, which we now celebrate on Christmas.
• The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the magi, which is currently celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the West. Thus your title of Three Kings’ Day for this feast.
• The third is the revelation of Jesus as God during his baptism, which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
• The fourth major revelation is Jesus’ first miracle during the wedding feast at Cana when he changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is now read on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord during Year C, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.
The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right. The goal of each celebration is twofold: first, we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better, and second, we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world. Oh, and by the way, there is absolutely no evidence that the magi or wise men were kings. They were more likely astrologers.
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.
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