On my way to services on January 6, I passed three churches. The Roman Catholic church was  celebrating  the Feast of the Three Kings;  the Ukrainian Catholic Church  was celebrating the Theophany, and an Orthodox church  was celebrating Christmas Eve.  Confusing?  How did this come about and what does it all mean?

All of these  holydays come from one common source. Scholars believe the early church celebrated  the Nativity of Jesus, the Epiphany (the visitation of the Magi), the Theophany (baptism of Jesus)  and the Wedding Feast of Cana (first miracle of Jesus) on January 6. They were all  manifestations of God  to humanity  occurring in the early life of Jesus so there was a certain logic to this.  As time went on,  the Epiphany, Theophany and the Nativity were moved to  separate  dates and the twelve day period in between was labeled the “Christmas Season”, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as the famous jingle would have it. Thus, the Epiphany, or the ending of the traditional Christmas season also become known as Little Christmas.

 The word “epi-“ in Greek has a variety of meanings including “near” or “over”.  For example, the epicenter of an earthquake means the point on the earth over the center of the earthquake.  It is used liturgically in such words as epitrachelion ( the stole of an Orthodox priest worn over the neck) and epiclesis (the eucharistic prayer over the bread and wine.)  The Greek “-phany” means manifestation.  Roman Catholics regard January 6 as another manifestation of  God through Jesus Christ near or around his birth and have labeled it the Feast of the Epiphany.

What is this Epiphany?  The Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Three Kings, yet another name for the day. How does their visit demonstrate the divinity of Jesus?  Matthew 2:11 states “they saw the child with Mary and they fell down and worshipped him”.  The act of worship was for God alone.  Their worship proclaimed the divinity of Jesus.  It is worthwhile to stop for a second and remind everyone the Three Kings  were not kings but magi, variously described as magicians, members of the learned class, or wise men.  Matthew 2 describes them as wise men and does not specify their number or their names. These have come to us through tradition.

How long did it take the magi to find Jesus? Well, not right away.  Modern Christians have  been fooled by the Christmas mangers sold in stores. The statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are surrounded by angels ( Luke 2), adoring shepherds (Luke 2) and the Three Wise Men (Matthew 2).  Unfortunately, this beautiful scene did not happen and comes to us as a conflation of the  Nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke into one story.[1]   The visit of the Magi did not occur at the same time as the adoration of the shepherds.  Travel was slow and tortuous in that era, so it took the Magi months if not years to arrive.  Some clues about the length of time are given in the Gospel of  Matthew. Matthew  2:11 says the wise men went into the house where Mary and the child was.  This was obviously not the cave or stable where Jesus is thought to have been born as it is not likely the Holy Family stayed in the manger for a long period of time.  Matthew 2:16 recounts Herod ordering the death of all male children under the age of two “according to the time which he had ascertained from the Magi.” [2] Given this passage it is reasonable to assume the Wise Men took up to two years to find Jesus.   The fact they traveled a vast distance over a lengthy period of time  only adds to the majesty of the Epiphany.  These Wise Men were so certain of the importance of Jesus they traveled for up to two years to present Jesus with invaluable gifts and worship him. [3] 

The Eastern Church emphasizes the Baptism of Jesus on January 6, and refers to it as the Theophany, or the manifestation of God in all Three Persons of the Trinity.  The importance of this event is shown by the fact it is mentioned in all four Gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke and describe the Baptism and John the Baptist discusses it in the Gospel of John.  All four Gospels describe the  the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending on Jesus immediately after the Baptism.  Matthew, Mark and Luke mention a  voice from heaven saying,  “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” ( for example, Matthew 3:17”).  John recounts a somewhat different message from heaven, but just as telling (John 1: 33). Eastern Christians regard the Baptism of Jesus  as the initiation of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation (or Chrismation as it is known in the Eastern Churches).  To this day, Eastern Churches administer Chrismation immediately after Baptism.  

Confusing enough already?  Well, now it is time to throw in complications caused by different calendars.  The Roman Catholic Church and some Orthodox Churches use the Gregorian calendar while many Eastern Churches use the earlier and somewhat less accurate Julian calendar.  The Julian calendar is currently thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar.  The Eastern Churches using the Julian Calendar celebrate the Nativity on January 7, so January 6 happens to be Christmas Eve for them.  The Julian calendar Theophany follows on January 20, thirteen days later.    The use of different calendars does not simply exist across various denominations.  It can exist in different parishes in the same diocese in the United States.  Some Eastern Christian dioceses allow their parishes to celebrate using either the Julian or the Gregorian calendar. 

So, it is possible January 6 can mean many things to different groups of Christians.  How do you keep them all straight?  Well, if you are a baseball fan like me, I suggest using a scorecard.  Does this matter?  By the flip answer given above, I would say no if you are a devout believer.  Christianity is a big tent, allowing for some differences in worship.  The variety of religious celebrations on January 6 is just one of them.

[1] Christians do this a lot.  One of my professors commented most Christians think of the Jesus of the Gospel of John living the Synoptic Gospel timeline.

[2] This event is commemorated December 28 or December 29 by various Christian groups.  The Holy Innocents  were considered martyrs.  The date of their slaughter and their number is not known. Despite claims of thousands being murdered, many scholars believe it was a handful of children since Bethlehem is a small town.

[3] Matthew lists the gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This led to the tradition there were three wise men.