What Is the Feast of the Epiphany?

Gillian Weyant

What Is the Feast of the Epiphany?

The feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, celebrated on January 6th, tends to connote one thing primarily among many Catholics.  Upon hearing the words “feast of the Epiphany,” many Catholics think only of the adoration of the magi after the birth of Jesus.  While this event is indeed part of the celebration of the Epiphany, it is but one component of what is ultimately a much more extensive and important feast.

What Is the Epiphany?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.”  In this way, the scope of the Epiphany proves to be much greater than simply the adoration of the magi.

The symbolism of the events involved in the feast of the Epiphany is rich and complex.  Let’s begin with the adoration of the magi, or the three wise men.

The Adoration of the Magi

Regarding this event commemorated on the feast of the Epiphany, it is helpful to again turn to the Catechism, which states: “In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi's coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.”  This adoration of the magi is of immense importance, as it shows the possibility of redemption for everyone who seeks it.

The symbolism involved in the adoration of the magi has a number of layers, but the first one is relatively easy to see.  The worship of Jesus by the magi shows us that Jesus’ kingship began at his birth and superseded all other earthly kinds of royalty.  Though the magi are often referred to as the three kings, it is not clear that they were in fact that specific type of royalty.  According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the term “magi” encompasses a number of different meanings.  In terms of their religion, it is thought that the magi were members of a Persian priestly caste.  They are also thought to have been philosophers, and others say they were involved in some way with the supernatural or astrology.  In spite of the variety of definitions one could apply to the term magi, it is clear that these were men who held a certain amount of power and influence in the world at that time.  The fact that they embarked on a journey and ultimately bowed down at the manger of Jesus shows that the kingship of Jesus supersedes all earthly power.  

The adoration of the magi also shows us how it is possible for the Old Testament to be fulfilled in the New.  If the magi were indeed members of a priestly caste, it is of great significance that those priests would surrender to the priesthood of Jesus as shown in the New Testament.  In this way, we can see the words of Jesus born out in this event that occurred after the Nativity, after this occurrence of the Incarnation: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The Baptism in the Jordan

The next event commemorated is another mystery of Jesus’ public life, namely His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist.   Although John initially hesitated to baptize his cousin among the crowd of sinners present at the time, Jesus insisted and allowed Himself to be numbered among sinners.  This shows His acceptance of His mission to suffer for the sake of the rest of humanity: as He is baptized in this crowd, He anticipates the death He will suffer as a result of His Incarnation.  After His baptism, it is stated in the Catechism: “The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to "rest on him".  Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism "the heavens were opened" - the heavens that Adam's sin had closed - and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation.”

As the adoration of the magi showed the power of Jesus, the baptism in the Jordan is indicative of His vulnerability as a result of the Incarnation.  Jesus Himself in no way needs the saving power of Baptism as Christians do, yet He submits Himself to it regardless.  Jesus’ baptism also shows us what we must do to reach heaven at the end of our lives.  As said in the Catechism, “The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father's beloved son in the Son and ‘walk in newness of life.’”

The Wedding Feast at Cana

The wedding feast at Cana is the final event we remember as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  This wedding feast, at which Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine upon the request of His mother, proves to be much more than Jesus’ first public miracle.

According to Pope Francis in an address to an audience, what occurs at the wedding feast at Cana illuminates the person of Jesus and the reason for His coming.  The wedding feast mirrors the eventual wedding feast in heaven.  In the Catechism, it states:  “At Cana, the mother of Jesus asks her son for the needs of a wedding feast; this is the sign of another feast – that of the wedding of the Lamb where he gives his body and blood at the request of the Church, his Bride.”  

Additionally, the miracle at Cana gives us insight into the role of Mary as Mother.   “It is at the hour of the New Covenant, at the foot of the cross, that Mary is heard as the Woman, the new Eve, the true ‘Mother of all the living.’”  The person of Mary as shown in Scripture fades into the background over time: she is present in Scripture throughout the time of the Annunciation, Nativity and in Jesus’ early life, but is rarely mentioned in Jesus’ later years.  Her presence at this wedding feast evokes her humble importance as Mary, Mother of the Church: her humility is indicated in her request of a favor from her Son, and her importance is shown by Jesus’ affirmation of it.

Epiphany Traditions Now 

As we have seen, the significance of the Epiphany is deeply theological and in many ways challenging to interpret.  How can we make the feast of the Epiphany one that we can integrate into our lives?  

One way is to have a traditional Epiphany house blessing.  This blessing remembers primarily the adoration of the magi, but can be a helpful introduction to the other events commemorated on the feast of the Epiphany.   In the house blessing, after several specific prayers, each room of the house is blessed with holy water and the initials of the magi together with the year are inscribed over the doorway in chalk.  For example, next year’s blessing will read “20 + C + M + B + 21.”  In addition to the initials representing the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, some say that the initials stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, or, “Christ, bless this house.”  This blessing is a simple opportunity to pray together and remember the mysteries of Jesus’ life as we celebrate the Epiphany.