Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

The season of Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming” or “visit,” begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year for Christians.

During Advent, we prepare for, and anticipate, the coming of Christ. We remember the longing of Jews for a Messiah and our own longing for, and need of, forgiveness, salvation and a new beginning. Even as we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus in a humble stable in Bethlehem, we also look forward anticipating the second coming of Christ as the fulfillment of all that was promised by his first coming.

The Christmas season begins at sundown on December 24 (Christmas Eve) through Epiphany of the Lord (January 6). This period is popularly referred to as “the twelve days of Christmas.”

The Adoration of the Magi tapestry dating from 1894 from the Manchester Metropolitan University, England. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How do United Methodists celebrate Epiphany and Three Kings Day?

Epiphany is the day Christians remember the coming of the Magi to visit Jesus, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

It occurs on Jan. 6 every year, the 13th day of the Christmas season. The word “epiphany,” from the Greek word epiphania, means appearance or manifestation.

The arrival of these visitors was a sign that the incarnation of God in Christ had been made known and was recognized by the heavens to the whole world, so that even Gentile wise men from the East came to pay him homage. This is an observance of great majesty, solemnity and awe.

An even more ancient Christian celebration than Christmas, Epiphany originally focused on the nativity, God’s incarnation (God made flesh) in the birth of Jesus Christ, and Christ’s baptism. After the late fourth century, as Advent developed as a season of baptismal preparation in addition to Lent, Epiphany became associated with baptism. This is why we see images of the three Magi on many older baptismal fonts.

In many Hispanic cultures, Epiphany is a day of great rejoicing and celebration, often kicked off by a parade the night before in which people dressed as the three kings or carrying statues of the three kings pass through the towns and villages throwing out candy and small gifts to all around. Families and children alike look forward to Dia de Los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day) as a time for presents, feasting and celebration. Attending church services that include the celebration of communion is also common in many of these cultures, even for those who may not attend worship regularly.

In England and some other European cultures, Jan. 5 is known as Twelfth Night, the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas feasting and partying. On Twelfth Night, many families gather in homes to celebrate with friends, food, singing and gifts. It is at these Twelfth Night celebrations that “Chalking the Door,” asking God’s blessing on those dwellings and upon all who live there, is most often observed.

In New Orleans, Twelfth Night begins another season of celebrations that comes to fulfillment at Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday). Epiphany itself, Jan. 6, becomes the kickoff day for that season, but is also often observed with a full celebration in church, complete with incense, elaborate processionals, choral celebrations, and Eucharist. 

Some United Methodists in the United States, who are not part of these rich traditions, tend to recognize Epiphany on the Sunday nearest Jan. 6. There may be a pageant of the three kings as part of worship that day and a small party afterward.

In celebrating Epiphany this year, consider partnering with a Hispanic, Latino or other congregation to find new ways to joyously celebrate Epiphany/Tres Reyes. In whatever ways you decide to celebrate it, remember at the heart of your celebration are the Magi kneeling, worshipping and offering gifts to Jesus, Messiah for all people.

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This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.