“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born…wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Matthew 2: 1-2
January 6 is the traditional date for the Church to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (the manifestation) of Jesus Christ. It is a day celebrated by both Western and Eastern Christians (and the Orthodox Church counts it as one of the twelve major feasts of the church year).
The term “Epiphany” is taken from the Greek epiphaneia and means a disclosure or unveiling. While the celebration is debated by scholars — some believing it to be a feast of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and others of his birth in Bethlehem, there is an understanding of the term in that Christ is being revealed to various groups of people. In the fourth century the Western Church began celebrating the nativity of Christ as December 25th and then January 6th began to be celebrated for his baptism. The Western Church outside of Rome celebrated the day as the Feast of Three Miracles: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. Within Rome, the celebration of the Epiphany was centered on the visitation of the Magi. This understanding eventually took the place of the celebration of Three Miracles and is now what Western Christians most commonly observe.
The Eastern Church celebrated the Epiphany by announcing on January 6th the date that Easter would be observed in that year. It was also a special day for performing baptisms. Finally, there is the custom of blessing the waters where a priest sprinkles blessed water throughout the town and then local waters of streams, lakes or seas are blessed by having a cross thrown in that young men of the town dive in to retrieve.
My own understanding (prior to doing a little digging) was a celebration of the Christ who is worshipped by the Magi who are visiting from afar. My reminder has always been that this a day to worship and celebrate. My practical sensibilities sometimes also remember this day that I can leave my Christmas tree up longer and extend the loveliness of the Christmas season.
The scientist John Polkinghorne has a lovely devotional book called Living with Hope:A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany which includes the following prayer for today:
“Almighty and everlasting God, who hast made known the incarnation of thy Son by the bright shining of a star, which when the wise men beheld they adored thy majesty and presented costly gifts: Grant that the star of thy righteousness may always shine in our hearts and that for our treasure we may give to thy service ourselves and all that we have; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Gelasian Sacramentary, eighth century).
A few resources:
In addition to Dr. Polkinghorne’s book mentioned above, I located the background details from:
Baldovin, John F. “Epiphany” in Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2005. Vol. 4, p.2818.
Wheaton, D.H. “Epiphany” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition, Baker Academic, 2001, p.381.
The artwork at the top of the page is entitled “Adoration of the Magi” by German painter Bartelmaus Zeitblom (1455-1522) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51137 [retrieved January 6, 2011].
Other resources in the Stamps Theological Library that you might enjoy include:
Tickle, Phyllis. Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours. Galilee/Doubleday, 2003.
Wren, Brian. Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.