The History & Nature of the
Feast of The Epiphany

Father Vincent O'Malley, C.M

Almost one-third of the world's 6.8 million people will celebrate the Christian feast of the Epiphany. The gospel reports, "After Jesus' birth in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of King Herod, astrologers from the east one day arrived in Jerusalem inquiring, 'Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage'." (Mt. 2.1-2)

These astrologers, along with the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem, understood from Old Testament prophecies (2 Sm. 5.2) that the Messiah was to be born in the little town of Bethlehem. Leaving Jerusalem, these astrologers followed the star south to the little town of Bethlehem. At the feet of the infant Jesus, these learned men placed gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The wise men joined the shepherds in adoring Jesus. (Lk. 2.8-20) Old Testament tradition adds that a cow and donkey would warm the stable. The angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests." (Lk. 214)

The transliterated Greek verb "epi-phai-ne-o" means "to make manifest." Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the whole world. The Messiah has come for the salvation of all people: Jews and non-Jewish Gentiles.

This Nativity Story is re-presented worldwide with statues in Christmas crPches, plastic figures in lawn displays, and scenes on Christmas cards. A year before I arrived at Emmitsburg, I traveled home from India through China. At Beijing, the spacious lobby of the hotel where I stayed had a Christmas manger with almost life-size figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, plus representative shepherds and wise men with their accompanying animals. Irony of ironies, I enjoyed this magnificent display of Christmas pageantry in a Communist country!

Origin of the feast.

Initially, 3rd century Eastern Gnostics celebrated on January 6, Jesus' birth, baptism and visit by the Magi. Eastern Christians chose this date to counter the pagan feast of the Egyptian sun god Aeno. A century later, orthodox Christians kept this feast but restricted the celebration to Jesus' birth. A dilemma arose because the Church at Rome in the 3rd century had chosen December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Rome did this to counter the pagan feast of another sun god. These differing dates for celebrating Christmas became resolved around the 4th century, when the East accepted December 25 as the feast of the birth of Christ, and eventually celebrated January 6 as the feast of the visit of the Magi; all three events, however, namely, Jesus' birth, baptism and visit by the Magi, are regarded as epiphanies, i.e., visible manifestations of divine interventions.

Manifestation of Jesus to the whole world.

Records indicate that by the 5th century, the Church at Gaul, Spain, Northern Italy, Rome, and Carthage were celebrating the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The Magi symbolize the Savior's reception by whole world. Traditionally the three wise men have represented each of the three known continents: the dark-skinned wise man represented Africa; the yellow-skinned wise man, Asia; and the white-skinned wise man, Europe. In the 8th century, the wise men had gained names: Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are expensive gifts for the newborn king. Gold is a precious metal. Frankincense is a gum resin which when burned emits an aromatic perfume. Myrrh is an aromatic spice.

Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the whole world. Jesus' good news is intended for all of God's people. Christians are to have a global vision which sees all people as children of God, as brothers and sisters, with Jesus as the Savior of all humankind.

The Vitality of the Christian Church

To help us to grow in a global vision, it might be beneficial to learn about the origin and present vitality of the Christian Church in the seven most populated countries of the world, which collectively represent 54% of the world's population.

China (pop. 1.339B). Nestorian missionaries brought the gospel to China in the 5th century. In the 7th century, Catholic missionaries translated the New Testament and Psalms into Chinese. For the next thousand plus years, Christianity experienced oscillating periods of toleration and persecution. Franciscan and especially Jesuit missionaries made great inroads. Russian Orthodoxy entered Manchuria in 1715. The earliest Protestant missionary in China, Robert Morrison, arrived in China in1807. Christianity experienced significant growth at the five major port cities because Western nations had demanded protection for Western missionaries. Virtually all mainline Protestant denominations contributed to the rapid expansion of Christianity.

The newly founded Pentecostal and Assembly churches arrived in the early 20th century and enjoyed much growth. Communists in 1949 began expelling foreign missionaries and closed Catholic and Protestant schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Christians went into hiding, and formed underground house-churches. The Cultural Revolution (1967-77) enacted harsh penalties against Christians. The Vatican under Pope John Paul II and the Communist Government agreed to appoint bishops of whom both parties approved. Today, the Catholic Church prefers to speak about not the government's Catholic church and Rome's underground Catholic Church, but one Catholic Church. A fair estimate seems to be that 40 million Chinese are Protestant, and 20 million are Catholic. All Christians suffer government-sponsored religious persecution.

India. (pop. 1.157B) St. Thomas the Apostle brought the gospel to India in 52 AD, and St. Francis Xavier came to Goa, near Bombay (now, Mumbai) in 1542. During these two millennia, Catholics and their later Protestant cousins sponsored schools and medical institutions. Protestant missionaries arrived from Denmark in 1706 and from England a century later. Mainline Protestant denominations united to form the Church of South India in 1947 and the Church of North India in 1970.

Currently, Catholics represent 2% of the population, and Protestants, less than 1%. Because Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II have attracted millions of admirers, the government imposed "anti-conversion laws." Persecution is real. In the last ten years, the BJP party has incited the burnings of hundreds of churches, and murders of dozens of laity and clergy, both Protestant and Catholic. Interestingly, persecution breeds a deeper faith. Of all the countries in the world, last year, India had the most ordinations to the Catholic priesthood.

USA. (307M) Missionaries from Spain brought the faith to the territorial southeastern and southwestern states in the early 1500s. Our Lady of Guadalupe's appearance in 1531 to Juan Diego led to the conversion from paganism to Catholicism of 9 million Native Americans within 6 years. Before 1600, 50 priests had been martyred in the US, and by 1776, martyrs totaled 150, almost all of whom were priests. The first priest martyred was killed by Native Americans at Kansas in 1544. The first city founded in the current territorial USA is St. Augustine in 1565.

Puritans came to Plymouth Rock in 1607; they sought freedom of religion for themselves, but prohibited Catholics from doing so under penalty of death. French missionaries brought the faith along the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to New Orleans by the early 1700s. In 1776, Protestants represented minimally 98% of the US free population. The Catholic Church burgeoned in numbers and socio-cultural services during the waves of European immigration in the mid to late 1800s. Today, 51% of US citizens identify themselves as Protestant, and 24%, as Catholics. Today, the Protestant and Catholic churches suffer from the crisis of faith which afflicts Western Civilization.

Indonesia. (240M) Portuguese merchants and missionaries brought Catholicism to Indonesia in the early 1500's. Today, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country. Indonesia is 90% Muslim, 6% Protestant, and 3% Catholic. In 1975, the Moslem-dominated Indonesian government invaded and annexed the Catholic-dominated island of East Timor.

Throughout the 1990s, violent fighting occurred between Muslims and Christians. Churches were burned. Christians were slaughtered. Christians struck back at the Moslems. The local Catholic bishop and a lay leader shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for speaking on behalf of social justice and religious rights. In 2002, East Timor regained its independent status.

Brazil. (190M) Portuguese missionaries brought the gospel to Brazil in 1500. At that time and ever since, Catholic missionaries heroically defended Native American tribes of the Amazon against government and business leaders. Today, Brazil suffers from great disparity of wealth and power, and lack of women's rights. The Catholic and Protestant churches promote social justice. In religion, a significant syncretism of religion occurs by the mixing of Catholic liturgical rites with magical occult rites. Evangelical Protestants have made great in-roads throughout traditionally Catholic Brazil and Latin America. Today Catholics represent 74% of the population, and Protestants 15%, with the Pentecostals being the fastest growing group.

Pakistan. (175M) The percentage of Catholics in Pakistan is 0.09%. Protestants are almost non-existent in this land which had enjoyed Christian faith until the 8th century when Moslems took control. Catholic missionaries renewed evangelization in the 19th century.

Bangladesh. (156M) Portuguese Catholic missionaries arrived in the 16th century. Even though Islam was declared the national religion in 1988, religious freedom is permitted. Christians account for 3% of the population, of whom 2% are Catholics and the rest Orthodox and Protestant. Mainline Protestants began evangelization in the late 18th century, and Adventist and Pentecostal joined them in the 20th century. Today, 80% of the population is Moslem, and 11% is Hindu.

Nigeria. (124M) Portuguese Catholic missionaries introduced Christianity to the coastal region in the late 15th century. Organized evangelization into the interior began of sub-Saharan Africa began in 1849, thanks to the great Protestant missionary, David Livingstone, and in 1867 by the Catholic cardinal, Charles Lavigerie. Islam dominates the northern part of the country, and Christianity the southern part. Islamic sharia laws have been imposed especially in the north. Catholics represent 14% of the population, and Protestants, 27%. Most Christians live in the south.

Globally. Out of 6.8 billion people, 1.1 billion are Catholic, and 1 billion belong to Protestant denominational or non-denominational churches. Almost one-third of the world's population is Christian. Also, 1.3 billion are Moslems; 1 billion are Hindus; and 250 million are Buddhists. The fastest growing religions numerically are Islam and Bahai.


Epiphany celebrates Christ's desire that the entire world might know, love and serve God and neighbor in and through Jesus. Interesting discussions might flow from the following questions: Why does India remain just 3% Christian despite 2,000 years of Christian presence? Why does China remain just 3% Christian after 1500 years of on-again off-again evangelization?

What factors have contributed to Islam having arisen from being a moribund religion in 1700 to becoming the world's fastest growing religion in 2009? What factors have contributed to Christianity being the slowest growing among the world's major religions?

Among the Christians, Jesus founded the Catholic Church 2,000 years ago, and Protestantism began 500 years ago; why do they have virtually the same number of adherents; what factors have contributed to the rapid and sustained growth of Protestantism? What may Catholics and Protestants learn from each other for their mutual benefit? What may Catholics and mainline Protestants learn from Islam and Pentecostalism in appealing so effectively to the masses?

The opening prayer for the feast of the Epiphany says, "Father, you revealed your Son to the nations." We Christians have much work to do in manifesting Jesus to the world. May we Christians manifest well our faith, hope and love in praise of God and in service of Christ and all humankind.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley