There is a difference between Christmas and Epiphany. Other than the obvious (different seasons) and that Christmas is by far the greater known, for those who follow the Liturgical Calendar of the Church the differences are important and well worth our noting. Basically it comes down to this:
The theme of Christmas is “Emmanuel: God with Us”.
The theme of Epiphany is “This Man is God”.
Let’s take a brief look at the amazing Jesus revealed as God according to the various Gospel readings for each Sunday.
Epiphany Day itself (January 6) has as it’s Gospel reading the visit of the wise men from the East who have come to gift the incarnate God with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each gift in its own way indicating that this child is God and King and that His death would be profoundly significant for the whole world.
The First Sunday after Epiphany recalls the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John. The voice of the Father declaring Jesus to be His beloved Son, the descent of the Holy Spirit anointing Him into the offices of prophet, high priest, and king in order to be the perfect and final fulfillment of them for us are amazing, marvelous, and show all that “this man is God”!
The Second Sunday after Epiphany recalls the announcement by John that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. All the Old Testament remembrances of the lamb of sacrifice whose blood is shed for atonement of all sins, brings deliverance from death, and freedom from the evil one’s kingdom. This is all possible because “this man is God”!
The Third Sunday after Epiphany recalls the beginning of the Galilean Ministry of Jesus and the calling of the four fishermen to be His disciples. He preached the Good News and showed His authority as God by healing the sick, casting out demons, and bringing relief to the sufferings of the lame by making them whole. No only is the God/man anointed to His task for taking away the sin of the world, He proved it by removing the visible results of a fallen, sin-filled world. Here we find the reality and the foreshadowing of all that will be healed in our bodies on the last day. And all of this is real because “this man is God”!
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany recalls the Beatitudes as proclaimed by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. Is it Law? Is it Gospel? Yes! We see Jesus as the one who is blessed by God who stands in our place in all these things. He gains them for us because we cannot attain them. He gives us the blessedness that comes with them all. And He promises in the final beatitude the surety of the ultimate blessing in heaven for those who are persecuted and slandered because they belong to Him. He alone can do this because “this man is God”!
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany recalls that Jesus makes us salt and light to the world, the change it and to illumine it. We are also reminded by Jesus that He did not come to abolish all the Old Testament laws, but to fulfill them! There is not one law of God in either the civic, ceremonial, or moral realm that have not been perfectly fulfilled by Him, for us! As breaking any of the law results in death, by His perfect obedience on behalf of all He fulfilled all. By His suffering and death on the cross the One who fulfilled all the law takes the guilt of those who could not, and becomes the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And all this is real for us because “this man is God”!
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany recalls Jesus teaching, again in the Sermon on the Mount, about the depth of sin. He “re-instructs” the false impressions about sin given them by the Pharisees who made fulfilling the law realized in outward acts of piety. Jesus reminds us that sin has its origins in the heart, and it is there that our attention is drawn. Because no one can truly harness their hearts on that level, the need for Jesus is even more acute. Thus, we are set right about the law by the Lawgiver Himself, and we are forced to turn from our supposed goodness to the God/man who alone can cleanse us from even these, because alone “this man is God”!
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany recalls the instruction of Jesus about our relationship with one another concerning our attitude. Love is all over the place. How unlike anything that has been heard before from the laws (although the summation of the Law to love God and love neighbor as self is clearly found in the Old Testament, just… forgotten in terms of application). To what level of goodness are we commanded to be? Perfect!! But not based on the comparison with others, but as perfect as the Father!! Condemned again! But Jesus also shows us that He does perfectly what we are incapable of, for only the “man who is God” can do this, and He does it all out of perfect love for us.
The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany recalls Jesus instructing us to having only one master, and that master is Him! When the world and its concerns (even personal concerns) are master there is nothing but despair. When Jesus is master we can cast all our worries and cares on Him. He takes care of and gives us what we need to see us through the worldly hard ache, knowing that all these are ultimately defeated enemies. In Him, “the man who is God”, we have hope, peace, joy, and love from above that we can then share with others.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday wraps up the Epiphany season and serves to translate us into the new season in the Church Liturgical Year, Ash Wednesday and Lent. As at the beginning of Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, we again are reminded that “this man is God” by the Father from heaven, and the enveloping cloud that reminds us the cloud of the wilderness wanderings, and on Sinai, and the dense smoke of incense in the Holy of Holies around the Ark of the Covenant. This “man who is God” now sets His face to Jerusalem to accomplish ALL for us on the cross.
The actual numbers of Sundays after the Epiphany varies from year to year because Epiphany is a fixed date and Easter is a movable date. Yet throughout each year the Visitation of the Wise Men, the Baptism, and the Transfiguration remain those anchor points that most clearly remind us of the overall theme: Yes! “This man is God!”