The word “epiphany” may not be a familiar word to you, but it has a rich history and a beautiful meaning. It is made up of two Greek words – epi, meaning upon, and phaino, meaning to shine. When epi is prefixed to a verb, it intensifies the action. Epiphaino thus means to shine with special brilliance, to appear manifestly, such as: “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Historically, according to NT Wright, the word epiphany has its origin in the Roman emperor’s “stunning and spectacular” appearance where the public worshipped the emperor as the “son of god.” Wright says two notions are combined: “a spectacular state visit, and a moment of divine revelation. The word that summed all this up was epiphaneia, the word from which Christians get ‘Epiphany’” (Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, 73-74). Paul was subversive, challenging early believer’s ideas of rule and citizenship by using common phrases of the Roman Empire in his descriptions of Jesus. By the use of these expressions he reminded Jesus’ followers that their allegiance and service was to the true God, their only sovereign.

Early on in church history (about 360 A.D.). Epiphany became a feast day that celebrated the Incarnation of our Lord – God manifesting himself in human form – or the birth of Jesus. The date was January 6, not December 25, and Epiphany, not Christmas. It would be another 200 years before the Roman Catholic Church created Christmas and set Christ’s birth as December 25.

To this day the Orthodox churches – the oldest of Christian denominations – still observe January 6 as the birthday of Jesus. To the Orthodox, Epiphany even includes the miracle of Cana, for there Jesus first “manifested” his power as Messiah, and especially the baptism of Jesus, where all three persons of the Trinity were “manifest” or “appeared” in human history.

This is why the Orthodox make so much more of Jesus’ baptism than the rest of us – they see an epiphany of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God spoke from heaven, declaring Jesus to be his Son; the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove; and Jesus was baptized. They point out that this is the only time in Scripture that all the Trinity is publicly “manifest” together in human history. Epiphany!

While the Eastern Church (Orthodox) and the Western Church (Roman Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches) both celebrate Epiphany, they differ on some specifics. But the idea is the same: God has manifested himself – revealed his likeness – in human form. This is especially evident in the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi – when the Christ is manifest to Gentiles or all non-Jews – and the baptism of Jesus, where all the Trinity bears public witness that God has appeared in the flesh.

Epiphany generally lasts for eight weeks or so. It’s a season of time after the coming of Jesus into the world, and the spiritual preparation of Lent, when we set our hearts on order and wait for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The time of Epiphany is supposed to be the story of the miracles, the healings, and the gentleness of Christ. It is the season when we are visited by a man named Jesus, a season when he reveals himself to us.

So as to give “Christmas” – Epiphany is both more ancient and more biblical -deeper meaning I am calling this God’s portrait of himself. The birth of Jesus – into a sub-culture environment of poverty and violence – begins the portrait. It continues to be drawn through the early life of our Lord – his baptism, temptation, teaching, miracles – and on to the Cross where he prays for those who crucified him. And at last the resurrection itself where light overcomes darkness and life overcomes death. This is God’s portrait of himself. This is what God is like.

“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3).

We are all awed by the paintings of Rembrandt, but it is something special to see his masterpiece, titled “A Portrait of Himself.” The master of the brush, the great Rembrandt, creates his own likeness upon the canvas, his own portrait. Epiphany!

This is what the One whom no person has ever seen nor can see, who dwells in unapproachable light, and who alone has immortality has done – given us a portrait of himself. Wow!