Ask Andrew 1: Epiphany

 Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew Part 1:

What is Epiphany?     How many Sundays are there in Epiphany?

Epiphany is both a day and a season.

Epiphany Day is the 13th day after Christmas: January 6th(the first day after the 12 days of Christmas). It celebrates the visit of the Magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus, and is generally interpreted to represent God’s light shining on the Nations beyond Israel.

Epiphany Season is the time between Epiphany Day and Ash Wednesday. The image of the light shining in the darkness is frequently a theme followed through the season. This kind of image works best in the Northern Hemisphere, as the days grow longer again during this time of year.

However, not all churches are not following exactly the same pattern. The Roman Catholics now calling the first Sunday after Epiphany the “Baptism of our Lord” and the remaining Sundays after Epiphany have been re-named “Ordinary Time”, effectively eliminating the Season of Epiphany. Many other churches are doing the same thing for a couple of reasons: there are LOTS of Christians in the Southern Hemisphere or Equatorial areas, where the change in light does not match the imagery of the season; and speaking as a preacher, it can be hard to maintain that “light” image for weeks!

(Note: the same challenge of a long season is true of Pentecost. It is so long that we have inserted a new season into it: Creation Time.)


How Long is Epiphany? Well, that depends . . .

The start of Epiphany is based on Christmas, which is a “Fixed Feast” (always on Dec 25th), so Epiphany Day is always Jan 6th.

The end of Epiphany based on the start of Lent. The dates of Lent are based on date of Easter, which is a “Moveable Feast”. The date of Easter was originally based on the date of the Jewish Passover Festival. The First Church Council of Nicea decided to change that, and created a calculation for the date of Easter based on date of first full moon after March 21.

NB: The churches of the East and West still use the same calculation, but the dates differ because many of the Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar, while the Western churches use the Gregorian calendar).

As a result, there can be as many as 9 Sundays in Epiphany, or as few as 5. In 2014 there were 8. To balance the year, as Epiphany gets longer Pentecost gets shorter and vice versa.

According to Wikipedia, The Church of England decided in 2000 that Epiphany would be a short extension of Christmas for a total season of 40 days. By that system, Epiphany always ends by Feb 3rd. The extra days before Lent are called Ordinary Time.

Bonus section for those who like the scary details:

A more complete explanation of how to calculate the date of Easter is as follows:

Easter is first first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox.

Ecclesiastically, the equinox is reckoned to be on March 21st(even though the equinox occurs, astronomically speaking, on March 20th in most years, sometimes on the 19th), and the “full moon” is not necessarily the astronomically correct date, but the 14th day of a calendar lunar month.

So to calculate the end of Epiphany

1: Take the date you have calculated for Easter

2: Back-date to Good Friday

3: Back-date 40 days for fasting in Lent

4: Add another 5 days for Sundays in Lent (we’re not supposed to fast on a Feast day)

All of THAT gives you Ash Wednesday

5: And the day before is Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Epiphany

Does all of this sound like calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

All of this is still calculated out for each year. This is a pretty medieval part of our tradition.

For me, the message is this: As Christians, we have often become overly structured & fussy. We can enjoy the best of the past, but it is most important to focus on the central teachings and values of our faith & work to apply them to our lives.

The Church seasons are useful reminders to us of the different aspects of our faith, so we don’t become fixated on only one or two ideas or beliefs. This can prevent preachers from riding hobby-horses, which is useful. But as useful as these seasons are, we should never let them distract us, or tie us up in strange calculations.

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