What is the Feast of the Epiphany?
1. What does the word “Epiphany” mean? “Epiphany” means “manifestation.” The word comes from Greek roots that means “to show, to display”. An epiphany is thus a time when something is shown or manifested to an audience.
2. What is the feast of the Epiphany about? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God, and Savior of the World. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (Magi) from the East. In the Magi, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The Magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the King of the Jews shows that non-believers can discover Jesus and worship Him as Son of God and Savior of the world.
3. When is Epiphany celebrated? This varies from country to country. In some countries, Epiphany is a holy day of obligation. Where that is the case, it is celebrated on January 6th. In the United States, the Feast of the Epiphany is transferred to the first Sunday after January 1st. In 2019, it so happens that the first Sunday after January 1st is January 6th, so this year the U.S. celebration of Epiphany coincides with its universal celebration.
4. Why is Epiphany connected with January 6th? Emeritus Pope Benedict says that it is hard to say how far back the beginnings of the Christmas feast go. It assumed its definitive form in the third century. At about the same time the Feast of the Epiphany emerged in the East on January 6th, and the Feast of Christmas in the West, on December 25th.
5. Who were the Magi? Emeritus Pope Benedict believes that the Magi were probably of a Persian priestly caste, but most people believe they were Arabian. Most likely, they were advisers to Kings, but NOT kings themselves. In Hellenistic culture, they were regarded as “rulers of a distinctive religion,” thought to be “strongly influenced by philosophy,” and that the Greek philosophers were their pupils. Others say that were possibly possessors and users of supernatural knowledge or magicians. The truth is, no one really knows exactly who they were.
6. Why did the Magi come to see Jesus? They presumably had material of a prophetic nature that allowed them to identify the birth of the new “King of the Jews” astronomically. They may have been especially motivated to come see this King since there was an expectation at the time that a universal ruler would shortly come from Israel. “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2-4).
7. Why did they go to Herod first? Probably, because they assumed the newborn king would be a son of Herod—the current “king of the Jews.” Emeritus Pope Benedict comments that it is quite natural that their search for the newborn King of the Jews should take them to Israel’s royal city and to the king’s palace. This, of course, played into Herod’s paranoia and led to the slaughter of the innocents.
8. What was the star? It is hard to know. Some question whether the star was a natural phenomenon at all, pointing out that it seems to lead the Magi to Jerusalem, disappear, and then reappear and hover over the house in Bethlehem. But Matthew does not say that the star led them to Jerusalem. The Magi merely said that they had seen the new king’s star “in the East” (that is, in their homeland), which is why they came to Jerusalem. Matthew does say that they went their way and the star they had seen in the East went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the Child was [Matthew 2:9]. Departing from Jerusalem at night, they may have noted that the star was in front of them in the sky—a coincidence arranged by Divine Providence. Then they noticed it was directly over the house—again, Divine Providence.
9. Does this mean astrology is okay? No, all forms of divination are to be rejected, such as recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead, or other practices supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes and astrology contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. Gregory Nazianzen says that “at the very moment when the Magi adored Jesus, astrology came to an end, as the stars from then on traced the orbit determined by Christ.” What’s important to remember is that it was not the star that determined the Child’s destiny, it was the Child that directed the star.
SOME MYTHS ABOUT EPIPHANY
The Magi are often called kings or wise men. However, wise men is more apt. They were, in all probability, the personal advisors to kings whose responsibilities would have included reading the stars, interpreting dreams, and a host of wisdom-seeking work. Some early Church traditions say there were twelve. Today, we choose to honor three, because three very significant gifts were offered. Over time, Church traditions have assigned them names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.
The Magi came “from the East” which, based on the nature of their gifts and Old Testament prophecy, means they most likely came from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Sheba. Arabia was known for its vast wealth from gold mines of Africa, as well as the Boswellian and Commiphora trees—from which frankincense and myrrh are derived. Of course, men from Persia could have brought these gifts, but they signify a giving of the best commodities from their own country to a neighboring King.
Scripture tells us that the Magi gave gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all things suited for a King. Matthew (2:11) tells us these gifts were great treasures given as worship, but they may have even greater significance. Gold was indeed associated with royalty, but it may also foreshadow Jesus’ purpose. In 1 Kings (6:20-22), the walls of the Most Holy Place and the altar are overlaid with gold. Frankincense was part of ceremonial worship of a deity. This gift underscores their belief that the Newborn King carried a claim of deity. Myrrh was used as a perfume, anointing oil, medicinal tonic, AND as a key ingredient in the mixture of spices used to prepare bodies for burial (John 19:39-40)—indicating that Jesus would die for His people.
Kings were in the habit of gathering the best and brightest into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. Magi were consulted in the Book of Daniel and by Pharaoh in the time of Joseph. Truth is, our Faith allows a holy place for mysteries to persist. But if you’d like a bit more clarification of the myths surrounding these mystery men, here are some insights from author Dwight Longenecker:
MYTH #1: THERE WERE THREE WISE MEN. We have no idea how many there were, and the Bible does not tell. The number three was assumed because three gifts were given to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, we don’t know the quantity of those gifts, or even if Jesus was only given one of each.
MYTH #2: THEY RODE CAMELS. This is a common misconception. Whenever you see movies from this time period, the actors are riding on camels. However, people in northern Arabia typically only rode Arabian horses. At the time of Christ’s birth, camels were used as pack animals, but wealthy travelers used the more comfortable and swift horse.
MYTH #3: THEY FOLLOWED A MIRACULOUS STAR. Matthew never says that they followed a star. He says they saw a star. The wise men were astrologers, and the star was an astronomical sign they saw that signified the prophecy of the Jewish king. That doesn’t mean a star led them from Arabia to Jesus.
MYTH #4: THEY WERE KINGS. It is unclear whether or not they were royalty, but they were not kings. They had royal connections though and were trusted by King Herod.
MYTH #5: THEY CAME FROM PERSIA, INDIA, AND AFRICA. This idea was added to tradition later. They likely came from Arabia, not these other countries or diverse backgrounds.