January 6th was the last day of the 12 days of Christmas, and last night was, therefore, the twelfth night. In the traditional Christmas calendar, January 6th is Epiphany or Theophany. In fact, for the first few centuries and in some places to this day Epiphany is treated as the more important “Christmas” event.
Epiphany has been the commeration of two things in the church calendar. As I understand it, the west remembers the visit of the Magi, while the east remembers the baptism of Christ. In either case, we see Christ revealed as Messiah and son of God. In His baptism, something extraordinary occurs. The text of the Old Covenant had spoken of the Holy Spirit and had prophecied Immanuel, but the trinity was never explicitly revealed. At the baptism of Christ, we read of this extraordinary encounter:
While Christ is being baptized, the heavens open (the heavens that had been closed to mankind in Adam) and the Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove. Meanwhile, a voice speaks from heaven saying (don’t miss this): “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Epiphany could literally be translated “enlightenment” without too much violence to the word. Here in Christ’s baptism, the ultimate enlightenment takes place. What could never have been discovered has been revealed. God has come in the flesh. God the Father has a Beloved Son. Being baptized, our incarnate God has been annointed to save us all. He who had been hiding in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth was revealed to His people and eventually to all mankind as the hope of salvation.
People have speculated about why Shakespeare called his play Twelfth Night. Shakespeare never seemed to do anything unless he had at least three reasons and six interpretations, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is at least nodding to this tradition in his title. It is a play of veiled identities, egos blinded, madness and imprisonment. But in the end, the very simple “separated twins” plot device brings clarity when they all discover the truth about each other and themselves upon the arrival of one who was thought drowned. It is a great epiphany, and celebrates, through imitation, the great Epiphany that is the twelfth day of Christmas.