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The Epiphany
The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles
January 6th

Having valiantly bucked the culture and kept the Christmas feasting going for a full twelve days, it would be easy, at last, to give in and to move on, back to "the old dispensation,", "the moderate Aristotelian city." And yet, having come so far, wouldn't it be unfortunate simply to resume the standard routines of our lives as if nothing had changed? Have we indeed "seen the actual Vision and failed/ To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility," rather than as the one thing that really does matter? When the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, the Church does not go into  hibernation. Indeed, what comes next gives us an opportunity to move from the private ponderings of blessed Mary and the wonder and praise of the shepherds to a closer consideration of the public meaning and proper response to all that we have seen and heard. We must not be at ease, and the Church is not at ease, for the Twelve Days end with the Eve of another Feast, the Epiphany.

"Epiphany" means "manifestation." The full title of this feast that begins a new season of the Church Year is, "The Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles." The Epiphany season, which extends from January 6th through Shrove Tuesday, highlights various occasions when Jesus was manifested to both Jews and Gentiles. To begin with, we will focus on the very first manifestation to the Gentiles, when wise men from the East came to visit the infant Child in Bethlehem.

The Wise Men

Tradition says that there were three wise men, or "magi," who came from the East, following a star and seeking the newborn King of the Jews. In fact, St. Matthew says nothing about the number of visitors. The number three seems to derive from the gifts they brought, which were three in number: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The wise men are also called "kings" because of a reference in the Psalms: The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall give presents; the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts. (Ps. 72:10)  In the course of time, they acquired names. In the West they became known as Caspar (or Gaspard or Jasper), Melchior, and Balthazar, and other Christian traditions have also found names for them. While much has been written about who they were and what prompted them to make the journey to see Jesus, all of that seems to us to miss the point. Whether there were three of them or a hundred and three, and whether we know their names or not, the story of their journey is not about them, for their principal role is to point to Jesus, to make others aware of him, and who he is. Even they do not fully understand this. On the one hand, they bring gifts of mystical meaning that manifest the character and saving work of Jesus. On the other hand, in their desire to fulfill their quest, they seem oblivious to the potentially dangerous consequences of their very public inquiries. By alerting the jealous King Herod to the birth of a rival king, they place the life of Jesus and of every other innocent young boy of Bethlehem in jeopardy. In the end, Jesus escapes the wrath of the tyrant, but the other boys do not. Nevertheless, the wise men have a role to play, and this they do. Thanks to them, from the very beginning of the story we know that, no matter how humble his apparent origins, this Jesus is no local hero, but the universal Savior, destined to be known and worshiped throughout the world, and to bring salvation to all people.

Like all major feasts, the celebration of Epiphany begins on its eve, which is also Twelfth Night, the end of the celebration of Christmas. Click here for some ideas about the segue from Christmas to Epiphany on Twelfth Night. Christmas and Epiphany share the custom of giving gifts. In fact, in many countries, gifts are given on Epiphany, not Christmas. Of course, both are appropriate. On Christmas, God the Father gave us the unimaginably great gift of his only Son, and we honor that gift by giving gifts to one another. On Epiphany, the wise men gave gifts to the Holy Child. We honor the Christ in one another by giving gifts--but we must remember that giving gifts to one another is not really the point. As Christina Rosetti puts it in her hymn, "In the bleak midwinter,"

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him--
       Give my heart.

Epiphany has many customs all its own so, W.H. Auden notwithstanding, the season of celebration is not in any way finished when the revels of Twelfth Night are over. St. Matthew tells us that when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem to visit Jesus, they found him and his mother in a house, not the stable where they had found their first temporary shelter. This is a cue to us that our Epiphany celebration should focus on our own houses and it is a very old custom to bless houses on Epiphany. In the East, in particular, it is the custom for the parish priest to go through the parish blessing houses. This is not the elaborate blessing of a new home, but a special blessing that is also often given at Easter, a renewal of the homes in which the people of God dwell and live out the mystery of faith day by day. In recent years, this custom has been revived in some places in the West. The Book of Occasional Services of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. provides forms for this blessing. However, there is another way of blessing homes at Epiphany that begins in church, but does not require the priest to go from house to house--something that would be quite impossible in many non-geographical parishes in the modern world. This custom involves chalk that is blessed by the priest and taken home by families to mark the doors of their homes.

The Blessing of Chalk

Priest:  Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
People:  The maker of heaven and earth.
Priest:  The Lord be with you.
People:  And also with you.
Priest:  Let us pray.

Bless, O Lord, this chalk that it may be an effective sign of your blessing upon the homes of your people.  Watch over our going out and our coming in and grant that the love of Christ and the wonder of his grace may be bestowed on every inhabitant and every guest. We pray that, like the wise men of old, we may serve him as our only King, worship him as the one true God, and honor him with lives of sacrifice and praise, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Hallowing of Homes

The blessing of the house begins with all members of the household standing outside of the main entrance of the home. It is not necessary for a priest to perform this blessing. Rather, the head of the household is usual, though any member of the household may be designated. In some families, the person who finds the bean or token in the Twelfth Cake or the King Cake has the privilege of presiding at this blessing.


Leader:  Peace be to this house.
People:  And to all who enter here.
Leader:  Wise men came to Bethlehem to honor the Savior and offered him gifts:
People:  Gold for a great king.
Leader:  Incense to the true God.
People:  And myrrh for his body, for he would suffer and die.

The initials of the legendary names of the wise men are written with blessed chalk on the door or the lintel of the house, framed by the numbers of the new year, in this way:
Everyone then enters the house. In some places it is customary to cross the threshold with the right foot first, thus starting the year out "on the right foot." Once inside, everyone may gather in the vestibule or another room for the blessing of the house.


Leader:  The Lord be with you.
People:  And also with you.
Leader:  Let us pray.

Send your blessing, O Lord, upon this house and on all who shelter under its roof. Inspire us as you inspired the wise men of old who sought your Son: give us courage on the journey, discernment to find the right way, and whatever we may need to complete the tasks to which he calls us. And, at the last, may we find our rest and fulfilment in his presence in the home he has prepared for us in your heavenly kingdom, where he now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

If water has also been blessed at church (see below), it is appropriate to go through the house sprinkling each room with it. Incense could also be used. It would be appropriate to sing a hymn while this is being done. The familiar carol, "We three kings of Orient are," would be a good, and very Anglican choice (see below). In some churches, gold, frankincense, and myrrh are blessed on this day. With or without these symbolic gifts, the house blessing should end at the family crèche with the collect for the feast.

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


The text and tune for "We three kings" were written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., son of the first Bishop of Vermont and the first instructor in church music at the General Theological Seminary in New York. While he never married, he was uncle to a large brood of nephews and nieces, and they expected him to bring a new hymn to the family Christmas gatherings each year at the bishop's house at Rock Point, in Burlington, Vermont. Several of these survive in various publications, including "Gather around the Christmas Tree," which is found here. Sources say that "We three kings" was written for a pageant Hopkins helped to stage at the seminary. In the text, as originally set out by Hopkins, the kings were each assigned a different line in the music: Gaspard the treble, Melchior the alto, and Balthazar the bass.


 An Epiphany Tableau

Christmas pageants have been popular since St. Francis of Assisi introduced them in Greccio in 1223. In fact, the first pageant was really a tableau, and it was enacted by adults, not children, as is generally the case today. While children's pageants are often quite lovely, we do wonder if all of the stress that goes into learning the choreography and a few lines of dialogue is the best way for children to gain a real appreciation for the story itself or its meaning. We are reminded of the story of the little boy who became quite frustrated when the flowing robes of the angels covered up the marks on the floor that indicated where each child was to stand. In exasperation, he turned to the teacher who was standing in the wings and announced, "These damned angels are fouling up the whole show." Is it the story or the show that is most important? And how can we make sure that the right things gets priority? We are inclined to think that children might enjoy the "show" and appreciate the story more if they are allowed to watch it, rather than to be it--and we suspect that the same may be true for their parents, as well.

We have found that a tableau enacting the Gospel of the Epiphany as it is read at the Eucharist can be quite effective. Ours works like this:

The Holy Family takes its place at one side of the Altar, Herod and the Angel at the other side. The Three Kings, led by the Star enter the church, singing the first verse of "We three kings" as they move slowly towards Herod. The congregation joins in the refrain of the hymn. The Deacon then announces:

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew.
People:  Glory to you, Lord Christ.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, (The kings and Herod pantomime. The Star is turned away.) "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, (Herod moves toward the congregation) he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
              'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
               are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
               for from you shall come a ruler
               who will govern my people Israel.'"

(Herod is alarmed, and goes back to the kings.) Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."

(The Star is turned back toward the people.) When they had heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. (The Star leads the kings around the church to the Holy Family. Each king sings his verse of the hymn.)

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (After opening their gifts, they retire to three chairs and fall asleep. An angel awakens them.) And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (The kings exit. The Star is left on a standard next to the Holy Family.)

The Gospel of the Lord.
People: Praise to you, Lord Christ.

All sing the final verse of the hymn. The Holy Family stays in place until the Offertory gifts are presented before them. They then exit.

Front row: the Star and King Herod; back row: the three kings.

King's Cake

The best-known food tradition on Epiphany is King's Cake (or King Cake). Actually, there are competing cake traditions. On Twelfth Night, Twelfth Cake, baked with a bean and a pea, is used to determine who will be king and queen of the revels. On Epiphany, King's Cake, is also baked with a token (a bean, or a coin, or another symbol). In some places, the token determines who will be king or queen for the day and be honored by everyone. In other places, the finder of the token wins the responsibility of hosting the Candlemas party. Catholic Culture tells about a particular English version (with recipe) of Twelfth Cake here. Fish Eaters has a recipe for Three Kings Cake here. In To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson suggests a modern variation on the King's Cake tradition. In her household, a favorite cake recipe is used and a bean is placed in the dough before baking. The cake is served as dessert on Epiphany and the person who finds the bean becomes king or queen for the next 24 hours. That person is allowed to make rules to be followed in that period of time and is crowned and robed and paid special honor throughout the period he or she reigns. However, that king or queen also has a responsibility and must give a short talk on the lessons we can learn from the three kings and their quest to find the infant Jesus.

The Baptism of our LordDonatello, 1438, John the Baptist

The manifestation to the wise men is only the first of the events that are celebrated in the season of Epiphany. In the Orthodox churches, the wise men are remembered on Christmas and January 6th, known as Theophany, is a celebration of the second great manifestation of the Messiah, the Baptism of Jesus by his cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan River. This event is generally celebrated in the West on the first Sunday after Epiphany, that is, on the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany that stretches from January 6th until Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. The Baptism of our Lord introduces another important symbol to the celebration, water. At his Baptism, Jesus is revealed to the world as the promised Messiah, the beloved Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, of the same Being, or Substance, as the Father and the Holy Spirit. At our Baptism, we are illumined by the Holy Spirit and made one with Christ, to share his divinity even as he shares our humanity.

Worshipers entering the newly blessed waters of the River Jordan at the Monastery of New Jerusalem, Istra, Russia; photo from TheMoscowTimes.com, 2002In the West, the principal custom relating to this aspect of the feast is the blessing of water. The blessing is performed on the Feast of the Epiphany. It may be part of the rite of Holy Baptism which has been administered on this day since the fourth century. However, water may be blessed whether or not there are baptisms and the water may be taken by the faithful to be used at home for the blessing of the home with chalk. In the East, the blessing of water is often accompanied by other customs. Frequently, the blessing is performed at a river or on a seacoast. In tsarist times in St. Petersburg, the blessing took place at the River Neva opposite the Winter Palace and was attended by the royal family. In Orthodox countries, some of the faithful immerse themselves in the blessed water as an act of devotion. In Greece, a cross is thrown into the water and boys and men dive into the water to retrieve it. The person who retrieves the cross is said to have good luck in the coming year.

The traditional blessing of water is based on a prayer written by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century. Since Baptism is the principal idea behind the custom of blessing water on Epiphany, the Thanksgiving over the Water in the baptismal rite of the Prayer Book would serve quite well for the blessing and it is entirely appropriate to bless the water in the Font. If there happen to be baptisms, all the better. The water may be drained from the Font and distributed to be taken home by the faithful.

Other Epiphanytide Themes

Two other manifestations are especially prominent in Epiphanytide: the Wedding at Cana and the Transfiguration. The miracle of changing water into wine is recorded in John 2 as the first of the signs which Jesus performed, manifesting his glory. This miracle is traditionally commemorated on one of the Sundays after Epiphany in many churches. In addition to the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th, the Transfiguration of our Lord was also commemorated in the Latin rite on the second Sunday in Lent. In that context the emphasis is on the conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah about his coming Passion. In some modern Anglican Prayer Books, such as the American Book, the last Sunday after Epiphany commemorates the Transfiguration, with the heavenly voice heard on the mountain echoing the voice heard at the Baptism of Jesus proclaiming him to be the Son of God, and pointing forward the greatest manifestation in the Paschal mystery.

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