The Feast of the Epiphany (always 6th January – 12 days after Christmas), is the traditional commemoration of the visit of the Wise Men, (sometimes called Magi or Kings), to visit the Infant Jesus in the house in Bethlehem where the family were staying.
These magi were astronomers and astrologers from Arabian lands, east of Judea, whose studies of the heavens were linked to portends of major events. The emergence of a “new” star – possibly the conjunction of Jupiter with another heavenly body, or the conjunction of two bright stars, or perhaps a supernova, or even a Halley’s Comet, was of sufficient significance that they interpreted it as a sign of the birth of a diving being. This prompted these Magi to study the various sacred writings of the various religions and sects in the region, until they found references to the Birth of a Messiah for the Jews which prompted their travels and visitation.
The word Epiphany is from the Greek ‘epiphaneia’ meaning ‘manifestation‘ or’ appearance‘. It is derived from a verb meaning “to appear.” In the Biblical context Jesus’ birth became apparent to the Magi and He was shown to them at their visit.
The Magi’s visit is recorded only in Matthew’s Gospel, and as he reports that they presented three gifts to the infant:
- Gold signifying Kingship;
- Frankincense – for Purity and Holiness;
- Myrrh – an embalming spice foretelling of Jesus’ eventual death on the Cross.
Ancient tradition has it that there were three Magi – given the traditional names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. However, Matthew does not explicitly number the Magi or name them. During their visit they naturally travelled to Jerusalem as the seat of Judean kings – visiting the Palace of King Herod the Great. On hearing of the Magi’s news and consulting his own scriptural experts he learnt that it had been prophesied (by the Old Testament Prophet Micah) that the Messiah would be born in King David’s home town of Bethlehem. Fearing for his throne, and as a violent and unscrupulous man, he ordered that all infant boys of age two and under should be executed. This, and the reference in Matthew’s gospel to the Magi visiting the house where the baby was – rather than the stable, suggest that Mary and Joseph had been staying with their relatives in Bethlehem for some while – perhaps up to two years, after Jesus birth – not wishing to make a journey to Nazareth with a small baby – and hence were still in Bethlehem when the Magi arrived.
To avoid the infanticide ordered by Herod, Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family and the infant Christ to Egypt for safety. They stayed there for several years until Herod had died, after which they returned to Nazareth. In this way, not only was Jesus born into poverty in a stable, but became a refugee, with fear for His life.
Christians take the visit of the Magi (non-Jewish people) as an indication of God’s intention that Jesus should be a Messiah – a saviour – for all peoples, and not just for the Hebrew peoples of that time.
The season of Epiphany lasts until the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple also known as Candlemas – which falls on 2nd February each year.
During the Epiphany Season we reflect more widely on Jesus’ revelation to the world as both the Jewish Messiah, and also as Son of God, and saviour of all human-kind.
We then move on to look at the beginnings of His Ministry with the calling of His first disciples, and to His first miracle – turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.
The Feast of the Presentation (chronologically just eight days after His birth whereas the Baptism and start of Ministry begin when Jesus is 30 years old) acts as a point of conclusion of the reflection on the coming and revelation of God in human form – Jesus at Christmas, and the start of looking towards His Ministry and eventually the Passion – the events of the first Holy Week and Easter.