Epiphaneia or theophaneia (revelation, divine revelation) were the earliest names of this feast in the first Christian centuries. The current Roman liturgy calls it Epiphany of the Lord and it is also known as the Feast of the Three Kings.
In the Eastern Church, Epiphany originally meant a celebration of the Birth of Christ, based on the birth stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. The Western Church put more emphasis on the visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12). The feast day was further enriched by the topic of the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist, where Jesus is revealed to the world as the beloved Son of the Father. Another moment of revelation takes place during the wedding at Kana (John 2:1-12), where Jesus reveals his glory and his disciples begin to believe in him. Ultimately, even the reports about the miraculous feedings of the crowds during his public ministry add to the topic of Jesus revealing his glory to the world.
This overlapping of various motives cleared gradually. After the celebration of the Incarnation moved to December 25, January 6 remained primarily focused on the baptism of Jesus. As preparation for baptism, 40 days of fasting were introduced, which gradually evolved into the Advent season. It was under the influence from Gallia that the triple-emphasis (magi – baptism – Cana) was adopted in the Roman liturgy, but there it eventually split into three feast days:
- The visit of the Magi (January 6)
- The Baptism of Jesus (January 13)
- Wedding at Cana (following Sunday)
Thus, January 6 became the feast day of the Magi. Since the biblical text (Matt 2:1-12) mentions three gifts, it was already Origen (185-254) who talks about three Magi. Different names later became associated with them and their alleged relics were transferred from Milano to the Cathedral at Cologne, Germany on July 23, 1164.
While Incarnation and birth in Bethlehem show primarily the humiliation of God, the feast of Epiphany puts the elements of his royal reign to the foreground. God, the Lord reveals himself to the world in Jesus and starts his rule over the world. The motive of light shining to the gentiles also implies focus on the mission.
Roman liturgy offers readings from Isa 60 (the glory of God over Zion; peoples and kings come over and bring gifts); Eph 3 (Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus), and Matt 2 (the visit of the Magi from East). Liturgical prayers relate to the veneration of the Magi and their gifts, as well as the motive of light.