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What is Epiphany?

With Christmas time now largely at an end, you might hear a new seasonal word floating around: Epiphany. Epiphany is an ancient tradition that commemorates Jesus’ physical appearance to the non-Jewish world, focusing our eyes on the marvelous truth that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior for all people. The word “epiphany” even comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance.”

January 6, 2019, was this year’s Epiphany Sunday for many Christian church bodies. Some will continue to celebrate and meditate on the event until the Lenten season begins on March 6.

Though you still may not immediately recognize references to this part of the church year, you’re likely to be familiar with its imagery. Though they are often included in Christmas nativity scenes and sung about in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings,” the three wise men—or Magi—are more accurately associated with Epiphany. Here are a few things you may not know about the Magi and their connection to Epiphany:

  • There weren’t necessarily three Magi visiting Jesus. The Bible does not actually provide a specific number. However, the Bible does state they gave him three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  • The Magi did not visit Jesus on the night he was born. Rather, they visited him in the home of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem a few months after, if not even later than that.
  • Magi were part of an influential religious class in Babylon, an area that is now Iraq. This group often studied celestial bodies as astrologers and astronomers. Knowing this, it makes all the more sense they followed a star to Jesus!
  • Daniel was likely the first to share the promise of the Savior with the Babylonian Magi. This probably took place around 586 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, taking some Israelites—Daniel included—to Babylon in the process.
  • Common readings during Epiphany include Jesus’s baptism and a number of his miracles. Just as he was revealed to be the Son of God and the Savior to the Magi upon their visit, these other moments further emphasize this revelation.

So, what does Epiphany mean today? It is a reminder that the truth of the Savior Jesus is for all people to know, no matter their social, familial, or geographic background. God shaped his plan in this way to make this fact clear. So, whether we are hearing about Jesus for the first time or building the strength to share the Good News with others, Epiphany is an extraordinary comfort.

Image credit: Natasevilla (used under Creative Commons CC0)