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06 January 2015


Today is Epiphany, the Christian holiday which celebrates God becoming human. (Certain eastern Christians call it Theophany.)

I know; you thought we did this already at Christmas, right? Well, Christmas serves this purpose in the churches who ignore Epiphany. For the rest of Christendom, Christmas may celebrate the birth of Jesus, but Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus: How humanity discovered just how significant his birth is.

Usually the discovery is represented by the stories of the magi coming to visit the baby Jesus. Mt 2.1-12 Or John the Baptist first hearing God point out who Jesus is. Jn 1.29-34 Or Jesus turning water to wine at Cana, which got his students to first believe in him. Jn 2.1-11

Epiphany was the original celebration of Jesus’s birth. Christmas evolved from it. Those churches who celebrate it, consider it the third most important holiday of the Christian calendar, after Easter and Christmas.

So why is it so many American Protestants ignore it? Blame the Puritans, the 14th-century Calvinist branch of the Church of England. To them, if it wasn’t in the bible, it was a Roman Catholic invention, and they wanted to be rid of it. So, no more Epiphany. Nor Christmas. It wasn’t till the 1830s when Americans began celebrating Christmas again.

But when these holidays came back, they were celebrated more like American merchants described them, more like Americans which came from non-English cultures practiced them, and not like the early Christians did ’em. Christmas is now a one-day celebration; it’s not 12 days, from 25 December to Epiphany. There’s more money to be made when the Christmas season stretches backwards, towards Thanksgiving. But I won’t rant about that today.

Christians in other countries celebrate Epiphany in all sorts of interesting ways—and of course with food and cake. They remember the magi (or the “three wise men,” as tradition describes them) and reenact their visit to the baby Jesus. Sometimes there’s more gift-giving.

But the important thing is to remember, again, how significant it is that God became human.

And with Epiphany ends the Christmas season. Happy Christmas again to you all. (Now you can take down the decorations.)