4 January 2018
A mosaic depicting the adoration of the Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo dates to the sixth century. (photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The feast of the Epiphany, also known at the feast of the Three Kings and Twelfth Night, officially brings the Christmas season to a close this weekend — but in many of the places CNEWA serves, particularly those with deep Orthodox and Byzantine roots, it is just as grand a feast as Christmas, with distinct traditions and celebrations.
The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek ἐπιφαίνω
(epi-phaino), which means “to shine forth, manifest, reveal.” The feast celebrates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, which is recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew — and even there, with very little detail. Despite the traditions that have grown up around the feast, Matthew does not tell us who these visitors are, where they came from other than “from the East,” or even how many there were. Christian tradition has “filled in the blanks” for 2,000 years and has had as many as 14 visitors, coming from all over Asia and Africa (which is not “from the East”) and even given them different names. Ultimately in the West, Christians settled on the number three because of the number of gifts. San Apolinare Nuovo, a sixth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, has a magnificent mosaic of three Magi, named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, indicating that the tradition was beginning to solidify at least in the West just a few hundred years after the time of Christ.
For Matthew, who is writing primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity, it is important to stress the universal mission of the Messiah born in Bethlehem. Regardless of how many there were or where they came from, it is absolutely clear that the Magi are Gentiles. In Matthew’s Gospel the Gentiles are among the first to recognize Jesus. For Matthew the visit of the exotic strangers is truly an epiphany in that the true person and mission of Jesus “shines forth” and reveals itself. Jesus is not merely the hoped for Messiah who has come to save the Jews, but he is also the “shining forth,” the revelation of God’s Son to the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.
Many local traditions have grown up around the feast of the Epiphany. In many Latin countries, the visit of the Three Kings is celebrated with parades and gift giving. In German villages, there is often a procession through the town. The pastor, accompanied by three children dressed as “Magi,” goes through the town blessing the homes. As each home is blessed, the letters C M B and the year are written in chalk over the main door of the house. The letters C M B stand not only for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar but also for Christus Mansionen Benedicat — “may Christ bless the house.”
Liturgically since very ancient times, the Epiphany and the end of the Advent-Christmas season was seen as part of a series of epiphanies. The Gospel readings at the eucharistic celebration immediately following the feast of the Epiphany have traditionally dealt with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the Marriage Feast at Cana.
The Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan are found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and each recounts a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the “Beloved Son.” In all the Gospel accounts, including John, a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove form an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is and what his mission is.
The Wedding at Cana appears only in the Gospel of John (2:1-12) and is also an epiphany. At the end of the account of Jesus turning the water into wine, the evangelist comments: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested (ἐφανέρωσεν from φαίνω, “to shine forth, manifest”) his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
In sum, this period after Christmas is a time of light and revelation — and, really, three epiphanies.
The first epiphany is what we traditionally refer to as “the Epiphany” and is the shining forth of Jesus as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The second epiphany at the Jordan reveals Jesus as the Beloved Son of the Father and the third and last epiphany of the season is the revelation of Jesus as the worker of might deeds and miracles at Cana.
Thus by the end of the Christmas season the Church through the liturgy not only proclaims that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but also teaches who he is and what his mission is.
Tags: Christianity Christian