What we now celebrate as two feasts, Christmas and Theophany (Epiphany in the West), was originally celebrated as one feast on January 6th. By the time of St. John Chrysostom (late 4th century) the Church had already separated the feasts creating a twelve-day festal season. But in one of his homilies on the Theophany, St. John points out that there are actually two Theophanies. The word “Theophany” means the “appearance of God.”
The first Theophany is what we now celebrate as the Nativity of Christ, or Christmas. Here God is revealed as man. Of course the Incarnation had taken place nine months earlier, on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. The Incarnation of God came secretly, in prayer, and was an event only known by Mary. Her holy life of prayer and silence teaches us that God always comes to us secretly, grows within us mysteriously, and is only gradually made know. After Mary, the first to know about the Incarnation was another unborn infant, St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the greeting of Mary, who had now been carrying the Incarnate God for less than three months. St. John’s mother, Elizabeth, heard from Mary the great news of the Annunciation, but except for her, no one else knew that God was about to appear on earth as a man. Not even Joseph, Mary’s husband, knew until shortly before the birth when an angel appeared to him in a dream.
Nine months after the Annunciation, the first Theophany occurs; and in keeping with God’s manner of revelation throughout the ages, it is a quiet affair. The Angels know. A handful of shepherds are invited. Three wise men journey from afar. But no one else knows. God appears and no one notices. This too is God’s plan: A few of the poor will hear angels and follow; a few of the wise will diligently seek Him. But most will not see God, even if His pregnant Mother knocks on the door of their inn. Times have not changed much since then.
However, when the time was right, when everything was prepared, Jesus’ cousin John starts preaching repentance in the wilderness. Hundreds, maybe thousands, come out to hear him and repent of their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River. John the Forerunner prepares the way, gathers the crowds, stirs up anticipation: “Who,” the crowds all wonder,” is this coming one, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire?” It is in this very public context that the second Theophany occurs. A Man walks through the crowd, a Man like all other men: outwardly indistinguishable. But John knows who this really is. His identity had been revealed to John from the womb.Now the time is right for everyone to know. Now the heavens open and the Spirit descends as a dove and the voice of the Father proclaims: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” On this day the Incarnation of God, the appearance of God on earth as a man, is proclaimed to all. No longer a secret, the God-man is revealed even to the demons. This is why Jesus’ first task after his public Theophany is to go into the desert to endure the devil’s worst, only to emerge forty days later, strengthened by angels, and leaving the demons scrambling to find a way to destroy Him. But this too is a part of God’s plan, yet neither the demons nor men nor even the angels of heaven know this yet.