“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “appearance” or “manifestation.” In liturgical traditions in the West, the day of Epiphany celebrates the appearance of the Messiah to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12). In some traditions, the day also marks a remembrance of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-13; Luke 3:21-22) or the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). These events carry different degrees of emphasis in the Gospels, but each is thought to mark the point of Jesus’ “public” revelation, where he is first recognized as God’s Messiah. In essence then, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. In some traditions it is known as the day of “Theophany,” meaning a “manifestation or appearance of God.”
In the early church, the day was to be a day of rest and reflection: “Let them rest on the festival of Epiphany, because on it a manifestation took place of the divinity of Christ, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism; and the Paraclete, in the form of a dove, pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne” (Const. Apost. 8.33). In spite of the liturgical importance of the feast, Chrysostom reminded his flock, in instructing them on the Lord’s Supper, “And yet it is not the Epiphany, nor is it Lent, that makes a fit time for approaching, but it is sincerity and purity of soul. With this, approach at all times; without it, never” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, Homily III).
Commenting on the feast, Gregory of Nazianzus remarked, “For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was no word before The Word; and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when we had by wickedness fallen from wellbeing” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XXXVIII, 3).
It is impossible to separate the incarnation from restoration. Jesus’ coming to earth in human flesh is not simply the cause for singing songs about a precious Baby or as a tradition to help us usher in a new year. It is the ushering in of an entirely new order of creation. Creation itself, marred by Sin, awaits the consummation of this restoration. For now we taste it in part. And we await its fullness.
We should thus not think of the incarnation simply as a means to redemption or salvation. That it certainly is. But it is more than that. For in the redemptive work, we are not only saved from sin, death, and judgment, but we are transformed into the likeness of the Son. It is this transformation which is viewed as the goal of the eternal plan (Rom 8:29). The coming of the Son was to rescue the world, to restore it, and to transform humanity into the very image of the Son of God. To give us our well-being, as Gregory stated, of which Sin had deprived us. But not simply to make us better. Rather to make us into the image of the Divine One Himself.