As I consider essay possibilities, I am reminded that today is a special day.
Just when we think the holidays are over, we realize they’re not — not until Jan. 6, when Christians all over the world celebrate Epiphany. In some places, the day is known as “Three Kings Day” after the wise men, or Magi, who, the Bible says, brought the infant gifts and proclaimed him the Son of God.
Everyone’s heard of “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” The title refers to the period between Christmas Day, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, to Epiphany, when they mark his manifestation — “incarnation,” in some Christian traditions. In fact, the word “epiphany” is drawn from the Greek and means “manifestation.”
The period refers to the story in Matthew that tells of some kings who followed a star in the East to find the baby in the manger. They brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
“But didn’t the wise men visit Jesus on the night of his birth,” you ask, “like in the church Christmas pageants?”
My research suggests that it is possibly a common misconception that the wise men visited Jesus at the stable on the night of His birth. In fact, the wise men may have come days, months, or possibly even years later. That is why Matthew 2:11 says the wise men visited and worshiped Jesus in a house, not at the stable. “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
We know that the magi were wise men from “the East,” most likely Persia or modern-day Iran. This means the wise men traveled 800 to 900 miles to see the Christ child. They were guided to look for the King of the Jews by a miraculous stellar event, the “Star of Bethlehem,” which they called “His star” (Matthew 2:2). “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
They came to Jerusalem and asked concerning the birth of Christ, and they were directed to Bethlehem. They followed God’s guidance joyfully. When they arrived in Bethlehem, they gave costly gifts to Jesus and worshiped Him. God warned them in a dream against returning to Herod, so, in defiance of the king, they left Judea by another route (Matthew 2:12).
How is Epiphany celebrated?
That depends on where you are and what kind of Christian you are. Most U.S. Protestants mark the day on the Sunday closest to Jan. 6 and it is usually limited to that day’s church service and sermon. But it opens the church’s “Season of Epiphany,” a time when sermons and lessons focus on the miracles of Jesus; the season ends on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (this year on March 1), the start of the Lenten season.
Typically celebrated on Jan. 6, or the closest Sunday, the feast of Epiphany allows us to truly comprehend what it means that God has brought His only Son into our world. The Wise Men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — were the first people outside of the stable to come and pay homage to Jesus. These royal visitors showered Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, herbs typically used for burial, possibly foreshadowing Jesus’ destiny.
Catholics also celebrate Epiphany on the actual day, and Pope Francis will deliver his annual Epiphany homily during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The following Sunday, many Catholic priests will deliver homilies that focus on Jesus’ baptism. Eastern Orthodox churches, too, focus heavily on Jesus’ baptism at Epiphany, with priests in places such as Russia, Bulgaria and Greece tossing crucifixes or crosses into the water, which devotees then dive for. Some Orthodox churches, which use a different calendar, celebrate Epiphany on Jan. 19 and won’t take the dive until then.
Many Catholic families will celebrate Epiphany with an opportunity to bless their homes in the New Year by taking the first two numbers of the year, adding the letters CMB (to honor the three wise men), and then adding the last two numbers of the year and displaying this sign over the top of the door of their home. The letters stand for the Latin phrase, “Christus mansionem benedicat,” or, “Christ, bless this house.” (20+C+M+B+20).
The Epiphany not only signifies the calling of the chosen few, like the wise men, but it also is an invitation to anyone and everyone around the world to follow Christ. For the first time, God was physically present for people on Earth through His Son, no longer just a voice in the wilderness.