The Magi approach the manger

Epiphany: A Feast Both Ancient and Modern

Trinity Church Wall Street will celebrate the feast of the Epiphany with a special Evensong at 6pm Friday, January 6, as well as at the midday Holy Eucharist at 12:05pm earlier that day.

Epiphany is one of the oldest feasts of the Church and has been observed longer than the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, aka Christmas, which may come as a surprise given the enormous cultural and secular attention paid to Christmas in modern times. The celebration of Epiphany began early in the fourth century in the Eastern Church where the feast is sometimes known as Theophany which, in Greek, means an appearance or manifestation of God.

Magi approach the manger
Trinity Church Wall Street Nativity scene with Magi still at a distance.

Epiphany recalls the visit of the Magi to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph during which the visitors brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The scripture recounts a journey of the Magi from the east, following a star and how, thanks to some supernatural intervention, the pilgrims frustrated the plans of Herod to eliminate the young Jesus, whom Herod saw as a rival.

In a larger, more theological sense, Epiphany marks the presentation of Jesus to the wider world rather than just the Jewish community into which he was born in Roman-occupied Palestine.

While familiarity with Epiphany among the general public pales nowadays when compared with Christmas, ongoing traditions are associated with the feast. The twelve days between December 25 and January 5 make up the Festival of Christmas, followed immediately by Epiphany. In many countries in Latin America, January 6 is called Three Kings Day (Día de los Tres Reyes Magos and includes parades and gifts for children. Irish Christians in past times referred to January 6 as Little Christmas. In New Orleans, Epiphany marks the start of Carnival, which goes on until Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras.

Epiphany Puppets from 2017
Giant puppets representing the Magi at Epiphany services at Trinity Church Wall Street in 2017.

On the calendar of the Church, Epiphany is more than a one-day feast, it’s a season that can continue as long as nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter in any particular year. In 2023, the season of Epiphany runs for seven Sundays and ends on Shrove Tuesday which, this year, falls on February 21. The following day, February 22, Ash Wednesday, begins the penitential season of Lent.