Reclaiming Epiphany

By Dianne Deming

Epiphany is the most overlooked holiday of the church year, at least in my experience, January 6 and its eve are days of high festivity in some cultures, but in most North American cultures we have ignored this traditional feast day, while giving Christmas more than its fair share of attention.

Epiphany was first observed in second-century Egypt, as both the day of Jesus' birth and baptism. December 25 wasn't established as a separate celebration of the nativity until around A.D. 336 and has never been universally celebrated on that day. Today some Eastern churches still observe Christmas on January 6, the day of Epiphany.

The Wise Men, originally recognized at Epiphany, have gotten mixed up with the shepherds, the angels, the stable, and the manger of Christmas. It is time we reclaimed Epiphany as a separate celebration with a meaning and significance all its own. Epiphany contains a wealth of educational opportunities for church educators.

The word Epiphany means "manifestation," "showing," or, less literally, "a moment of recognition." Epiphany celebrates God's manifestation of Jesus in three ways.

First, Epiphany celebrates the fact that Jesus came to all people. The story most often associated with Epiphany is that of Wise Men from the East following the star as it led them to Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Foreigners bowing before the new king show that God offers the Messiah to the whole world, not to just one race or nation.

The second manifestation showed Jesus' divinity. After his baptism by John in the Jordan River, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. Then a voice came from heaven proclaiming him as God's Son (Matt. 3:16-17).

Finally, Jesus' power was manifested at the wedding feast in Cana. It was here that he performed his first public miracle, changing water into wine.

These three events—the Magi's visit, Jesus' baptism, and the miracle at Cana—are traditionally associated with January 6. Although all three moments of recognition are observed on Epiphany, the majority of customs associated with the holiday in the Western world relate to the "Three Kings."

The biblical account does not offer many details about the foreigners or their visit. Much of what we think we know is based in tradition, not Scripture. Legend has fleshed out the visitors by giving them names, homelands, and even experiences on their journey, both before and after their encounter with Jesus.

If we are to reclaim Epiphany, the first step will be to get the facts straight as Matthew tells them. Reread the story with a careful eye and realize that the Gospel does not put the visit of the Wise Men at the stable but at a house. Most scholars attest that the visitors arrived in Bethlehem as much as two years after Jesus' birth, according to the biblical account (Matt. 2:16). You may want to consult a Bible commentary at this step.

Read the story again, this time looking for images or themes that you may choose to explore with your class or group. Some possibilities are star, crown, camel, travel, gifts, light, two-year-old child, or going home a different way.

Plan activities that allow the class to revisit the biblical story to get the facts straight while building on your chosen theme. Some ideas are:

1. Act out the story, using a two- year-old Jesus and as many magi as necessary to ensure that each student has a part.

2. Let everybody dress up as a king or queen and make a crown.

3. Together decorate a large cardboard box to be used to collect gifts of canned goods, then deliver your gift to a food bank.

4. Make stars.

5. At the end of class session, have students leave the room or church in a way different from the route they usually take. Parents might want to take an alternate route home, as did the Wise Men.

6. Compare and contrast the visiting kings with Herod. What kind of rulers were they? What were the expectations of the visiting kings and of Herod about Jesus? Compare King Herod with Christ the King as well.

7. Learn a new Epiphany song such as "Take Time" by Avery and Marsh (The Avery and Marsh Songbook).*

The possibilities for creative educational opportunities on the Epiphany theme are endless and not limited to the classroom. Your whole congregation may want to be involved in celebrating Epiphany with a church-wide party on or near January 6.

Giving Epiphany its due helps all of us to better understand Jesus, his mission in the world, and our own response to the gift of God's grace. Don't let this opportunity for ministry pass you by.

An Epiphany Party for All Ages

Many Epiphany customs from Western Europe and Great Britain come together in a traditional Epiphany Party. The Epiphany Party is fun and educational for adults, teens, and children. It works well for a choir party, a church school program, a youth group meeting, or an intergenerational event for the entire congregation.

As guests arrive, greet them at the door and ask them to remove one shoe. Hobbling around with only one shoe remaining reminds them of the long, difficult journey the Wise Men took to Bethlehem. The shoes are lined up along a wall.

Refreshments, including a "King's Cake," are served first. Three dried beans are usually baked in the cake. All who find a bean in his or her piece of cake are crowned monarchs for the rest of the party. You may want to have more or less than three beans, depending on the size of your group. Changing the number from the expected three would provide an opportunity to explain that no one really knows how many Magi made the trip.

Next, the humble subjects help the kings and queens get in costume for their parts with dress-ups provided. These may include robes, colorful lengths of fabric, costume jewelry, tablecloths, curtains, and so on.

The Wise Ones are excused from the room for a few minutes. While they are gone, quietly place a small gift inside each empty shoe. Try not to be seen by the party guests. When the monarchs return, have them ask where the Christ Child is. Everyone responds with joy. "He is here indeed, among us. Come let us celebrate together!" To celebrate the presence of the Lord, the Wise Ones distribute gifts by matching up the shoes.

Next comes entertainment for the esteemed royalty. Divide the members of the party (excluding the kings and queens) into three groups. Each group has about twenty minutes to devise an appropriate entertainment or service for the monarchs. Some suggestions might be singing a song, performing a skit, reading a poem, giving a group shoulder rub, or leading a group game. (If your group is very large, divide into teams of about ten. You may need to spread the Wise Ones out around the room and have them entertained individually by several teams instead of doing this all together.)

After the formal entertainment, the party may continue with more fellowship time, carol singing, crafts, games, or refreshments. Be sure to wish everyone a happy Epiphany as they leave!

Most people complain of too much to do in too little time during Advent, and many suffer from post-Christmas letdown. A good solution to both problems would be to have a church-sponsored gathering at Epiphany rather than before Christmas, and to share together the joy of God-With-Us together on January 6.

The Rev. Dianne E. Deming is a freelance writer and parish associate for the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. She has been a frequent contributor to ALERT.

* A special thank-you to the Rev. Robert London, educational consultant to the Presbytery of Lackawanna, for contributing these classroom suggestions.

Reprinted from ALERT, August 1995, Vol. 25, No. 2.