What Do You Think of When You Think of January 6th?

The importance of January 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany has been lost due to the events of three years ago as well as the moving of the feast to a convenient Sunday.

Today is Twelfth Night, the traditional date of Epiphany. It is, you know from that catchy carol, the “Twelfth Day of Christmas.” Colloquially, it’s often called “Three Kings Day.”

Yes, the U.S. Bishops, in their (lack of) wisdom, have transferred Epiphany to the Sunday after January 1 in the Ordinary Form, turning this year’s Twelfth Night into Thirteenth Night (it can even be Fourteenth Night). This is the same group that, knowing better than Jesus who ascended into Heaven on the 40th day after His Resurrection (with the instruction to His disciples to wait for the Coming of the Holy Spirit, whenever that was to happen), have us observing that departure on Day 43.  

The waylaying of Twelfth Night to an adjacent Sunday has been ecclesiastical practice in the United States for so many decades that I’d say a fair number of Catholics—particularly the younger ones—don’t even necessarily connect January 6th with Epiphany.

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For them, as for many non-Catholic or nonreligious Americans, January 6th is “Insurrection Day.”

It’s telling (and not just for the legal accuracy) that we don’t actually call it “Insurrection Day.”  Granted, that four-syllable word doesn’t just roll off the tongue and is best invoked when one wants to apply disqualifications written for the Reconstruction era in our own. Still, the phenomenon is worth examination.

Our culture has simply reduced that day’s events to “January Sixth,” just like 9/11.  We don’t call it “World Trade Center Day” or “Attack on America Day.” “9/11” says it all. Just like “January Sixth.”

Now, without getting into the merits of how to describe or characterize the political events that happened January 6, 2021, let me instead ask a theological question: How did we get to the place that, even for Catholics, January 6th was so bereft of any other association that it was ripe for identification with “Insurrection Day”? 

9/11 was at least a “weekday in ordinary time.” But January 6th, for almost two millennia before Donald Trump or the QAnon Shaman, was a very important Christian day. One might even argue that, for a while, it outranked Christmas. It was the feast of Christmas: the Epiphania, the ἐπιφάνεια, the “revelation” of Jesus Christ in the Flesh.

How did we get from January 6th being a feast ranking up there with Christmas to a blank day on the calendar whose meaning and associations were up for grabs?

Part of it is the Protestant origins of the United States. While the Magi’s visit to the Christ Child is biblically documented, Protestants put their liturgical eggs all in one basket: Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Very little of a structured liturgical calendar enjoyed support among Protestants, apart from the Anglicans (who liked looking like, if not acting like, Catholics).  

The Orthodox didn’t help much, either. Granted, their numbers are limited and thus culturally less influential in the United States. But the adhesion until recently of almost all Orthodox to the Julian Calendar meant the “January 6th” the rest of their neighbors celebrated was their “December 24.” (Merry Christmas to Orthodox celebrating tomorrow.)

And, finally, while Canon 1246 §1 prescribes Epiphany as a holy day of obligation, the Catholic bishops of the United States availed themselves of the escape clause in §2 (even before there was a section 2 or the 1983 Code of Canon Law) to shift Epiphany to a Sunday.  

So, a date that multiple centuries of Catholics instinctively recognized as “Epiphany” has become so divested of its tradition that when you say “January Sixth” to even an American Catholic, his first thoughts are about Washington not Bethlehem. A date that multiple centuries of Catholics instinctively recognized as “Epiphany” has become so divested of its tradition that when you say “January Sixth” to even an American Catholic, his first thoughts are about Washington not Bethlehem.Tweet This

Am I the only one who thinks there is something wrong with this picture?

Don’t take my word for the staying cultural power of January 6th. Hispanic Catholics constitute an ever-greater proportion of the Catholic population of the United States.  Many come from countries whose bishops were not so “pastorally accommodating” about eliminating or transferring January 6th as a holy day.

[I’d observe that it was only recently that, in Poland, the former government decided to match the cultural significance of Epiphany to a legal status, i.e., making it a civil holiday.]

Epiphany is an incredibly theologically rich feast, whose liturgical significance has been recognized for over a millennium. Its sidelining to an adjacent Sunday does it injustice.

That injustice seems doubled when the vacuum created by that transferal has been so thoroughly and rapidly filled by a partisan event that the original association of January 6th with “Three Kings” might be thought the exotic hang-up of some crank theologians.

Which is to suggest that the long-term secularization abetted by various “pastoral accommodations” made by the Church—no doubt sometimes sincerely for what were thought to be good motives—have been erosive in the long term. It’s time for this process to stop. To do that, it’s time to start the process of asking what we are doing to holy days of obligation, from Sunday sidelines to “Saturday-or-Monday-get-out-of-Church-free” tickets.  

Because there’s something wrong when the first thing Catholics might associate January 6th with is politics rather than Epiphany. After all, like “insurrection,” it’s a four-syllable word—and was there first.

[Image: “The Adoration of the Magi” by Edward Burne-Jones] 


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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