One thing I really enjoy about being a Catholic is that we get to continue celebrating Christmas into the first week of the new year. Prior to my conversion, when I was still a Protestant, our family playbook was always to put up the Christmas decorations and tree over Thanksgiving weekend and take it all down on New Year’s day, thereby pronouncing Christmas “over” for that particular year.
However, the Catholic Liturgical Calendar advocates a slightly extended timeline for Christmas. The Christmas season starts with the first Sunday of Advent, which is usually around December 1st of a given year, such that the 4th Sunday of Advent is on or immediately before Christmas Day. In most calendar years, this usually lands on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, which aligns well with how many kick-off the Christmas holidays, such as the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center in NYC and many other places.
So, most of the time, we time the beginning of Christmas about right, but we often miss the mark on its true ending. Technically, Christmas ends on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord (AKA Three kings day), which is almost always January 6th. The Epiphany is then celebrated at Mass on the following Sunday (January 8th for 2023).
This means the birthday party of Jesus Christ does not end on December 25th nor the end of the calendar year, but on the Three Kings Day or the Epiphany of the Lord Sunday. This is extremely significant in that there is so much meaning packed into the Epiphany.
Hence, the rest of this article will start with a brief overview of the Liturgical Calendar and a deep dive into the symbolism and meaning behind the Epiphany celebration.
Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar Overview
In essence, the Liturgical Calendar depicts the timeline for the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is basically a calendar year in itself, yet it’s superimposed on our usual (western) calendar. It emphasizes the key events and also the preparation for such events. It starts with the first day of Advent and ends with the last day of Ordinary Time just prior to Advent. The website, faithward, provides a nice summary of the Liturgical Calendar. Following are the key points/events:
- Advent: The four (4) Sundays before Christmas – usually starts ~December 1st and ends on December 24th. It is a time to prepare and anticipate the birth of Jesus. As Catholics, we also emphasize its usefulness in preparing ourselves for the second coming of Christ as well as preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Christmas: Starts on Christmas Day (December 25th), and it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Some Christians view it as a one-day event. However, us Catholics view it as a multiday event that starts on December 25th and continues through January 6th.
- Epiphany of Jesus Christ: A one-day event that occurs on January 6th that celebrates the revelation of the Son of God as a human being in Jesus. Western Christians (Catholics and Protestants alike) usually commemorate the magi’s (AKA Three Kings) visit to Jesus. This is what officially ends the Christmas season/celebration for Catholics and some other denominations.
- Ordinary Time: There are actually two periods of Ordinary Time: a) between the Epiphany and the first day of Lint; and 2) between the Pentecost and the first day of Advent. It focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and is a time for us Christians to grow and mature in our faith.
- Ash Wednesday: Marks the first day of Lint. It focuses on fasting, prayer and repentance (change of heart in coming to Jesus). The ashes symbolize our mortality and that our being on earth will return to an inanimate state (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”).
- Lint: Period between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week during which we prepare for the death of Jesus. In biblical times, it was also the time of preparation for baptism, and it still is for Catholics baptized as adults via the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and children who were not baptized as infants and are thus baptized via the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children (RCIC).
- Palm Sunday: the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It also marks the beginning of Jesus’ last week in His earthly life.
- Holy Week: The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. It commemorates the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. It is a time of repentance and sometimes fasting as the Church remembers and reflects on Jesus’ sacrifice. It includes Maundy Thursday (the Last Super and Jesus prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane) and Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified and died).
- Easter Sunday: Celebrates Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb. The Easter season starts on Easter Sunday and lasts until the Pentecost.
- Ascension Day: Celebrates Jesus’ ascension after His resurrection. It occurs 40 days after Easter Sunday.
- Pentecost: Celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, which marks the birth of the (Catholic) Church. It occurs 7 weeks after Easter Sunday.
- Trinity Sunday: Celebrates the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It occurs on the Sunday following the Pentecost.
- Solemnity of Christ the King Sunday: The Sunday before Advent and the last Sunday of the current liturgical year. It celebrates the complete authority of Christ as king and Lord of creation.
This is essentially the Liturgical Calendar in a nutshell. There are numerous other events, but I believe this addresses the major ones.
One interesting aspect is that each Liturgical Year starts approximately (if not exactly) one month prior to the start of that same calendar year. So, on December 3, 2023, you can wish everyone “Happy New Year”, when you’re talking about the 2024 liturgical year.
Epiphany Sunday Symbolism and Meaning
As mentioned earlier, Epiphany Sunday has lots of symbolic meaning in addition to its basic meaning of depicting the 3 kings/wisemen/magi recognizing Jesus as the Son of God and then revealing it to the world.
- Notice the use of the number “3” – 3 kings bearing 3 gifts. As we know, the number 3 represents the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- The five-pointed star – the Christmas Star/Star of Bethlehem – represents the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It also represents those who bring us closer to Jesus Christ, as we so need God in our lives! Our personal “stars” often include parents, friends, kids, siblings, other relatives, Church family, clergy, etc.
- Herod – those who try to deceive us and lead us away from Christ. Although Herod was king at the time, his life did not end well. After ordering the killings of all firstborns in Bethlehem, he became both physically and mentally ill and even attempted suicide before he finally died. This illustrates God’s eventual triumph over the devil.
- The gift of gold – represents the ultimate kingship of Jesus. It is to see and experience Jesus and his grand kingship, which we all must recognize. It also illustrates that Jesus is the keeper of all of our material wealth. It is not ours. Instead, it is His, and we are the stewards of whatever amount he entrusts with us.
- The gift of Frankincense (AKA incense) – represents the divinity of Jesus, as such is used during highly divine/holy religious exercises.
- The gift of mirth (AKA perfume) – represents the humanity of Jesus, as such was used only to bury the dead. Although Jesus is fully God – therefore immortal – mirth recognizes Jesus as also fully human and therefore subject to death (yet later to be resurrected).
I also find it noteworthy that the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on the Epiphany of the Lord, not December 25th. I can definitely see merit to this approach because the Epiphany is basically the climax or grand finale of our Christmas celebration.