The Solemnity of the Epiphany is one of the richest feasts in the Christian liturgy, and for this reason, it is also among the most misunderstood. The Greek word which we translate epiphany simply means “appearance” or “manifestation”, and in the Western liturgical tradition the Epiphany is linked most strongly to the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. But in the Eastern liturgies, the Epiphany is focused not only on the visit of the Magi but on every early event by which Christ is revealed to the world as the Messiah: His birth, the visit of the Magi, His presentation in the Temple, and His instruction of the elders in the Temple, His Baptism in the Jordan, and His first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. For this reason, ancient liturgies refer to the Epiphany as a festival of illumination, declaration, and theophany, and in many Eastern Christian Churches (like the Armenian), January 6th is the primary or only celebration of the Birth of Jesus, not December 25th.
This helps us understand the profound link between the Western feasts of Christmas and Epiphany and why this celebration is the traditional Twelfth Day of Christmas. The revelation of the Son of God to the world begins with His birth, continues with the visit of the Magi and with His presentation in the Temple, is intensified at His Baptism, and finds its first miraculous expression at Cana. Though separated by thirty years, the events at Bethlehem and Cana are truly but one continuous unfolding of the eternal plan of salvation, and of all these mysteries we can speak with equal force the words of the Preface of the Epiphany from the Roman Missal: “Father…today you have revealed the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations, and when he appeared in our mortal nature, you made us new by the glory of his immortal nature.”
The Epiphany is an older Christian feast than Christmas, and from antiquity it has been kept on January 6th. The first recorded mention of this feast was in 361, and by 385 the Epiphany was celebrated in Jerusalem for eight days, like the present Octaves of Easter and Christmas and the old Octave of Pentecost. All of this points to the supreme importance of the sacred mysteries we celebrate today: by His incarnation and birth, by His revelation to the Magi and His presentation in the Temple, by His Baptism and the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, the Son of Mary is gradually shown to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”