Epiphany is an ancient church festival celebrating the magi’s visit to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12). It is kept on January 6. Epiphany is also called “Three Kings’ Day” and “Twelfth Day”—the latter name because January 6 is twelve days after Christmas; the eve of Epiphany is called “Twelfth Night.” It is celebrated mainly in Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and other liturgical churches.
The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” Thus, the holiday celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the magi (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:32). For some, Epiphany also commemorates the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21-22) and His turning water into wine (John 2:1-11)—manifestations of Christ’s divinity to the world.
Many traditions surround Epiphany celebrations, which vary from culture to culture. Customs include the Star Singers (children dressed as kings and holding up a large star, singing carols from house to house); collecting money for charity; and the “plundering” and burning of Christmas trees. In the French Catholic culture, Epiphany marks the beginning of Mardi Gras, as “king cakes” are baked and served.
Other traditions include prayers (some offered to “Caspar,” “Melchoir,” and “Balthasar,” the traditional names of the magi); the blessing of holy water; the burning of “blessed” herbs; and the offering of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Should a Christian celebrate Epiphany? There is certainly nothing wrong with celebrating the different events of Christ’s life, and a Christian is free to observe whatever day he wants, as long as he “does so to the Lord” (see Romans 14:4-6).
Having said that, we should be careful to avoid the superstitions and empty rituals (Isaiah 1:13-14) which have sprung up around many holidays, including Epiphany. Sprinkling “holy” water, for example, and burning “blessed” herbs are nothing but superstitious practices. And some customs directly conflict with scripture. For instance, asking the magi to bless one’s house conflicts with the Bible’s clear teaching that we pray only to God Himself (Psalm 91:15; Matthew 6:6 & 9; 1 Timothy 2:5).
Whatever holidays we choose to observe, the Lord should always be glorified in them; however our calendars are marked, the Bible must remain our only rule for faith and practice.
We take liberties in our Christmas pageant by blending the gospel stories about Jesus’ beginnings. Only two of them have birth stories. Luke has the manger and the angels and shepherds. Matthew contributes the star and the magi. Today, it is just Matthew’s story we’re telling. It is the text for Epiphany, the coming of the light, the star, the wise ones. The scene is Bethlehem. Jesus may be an infant or he may be a young child of about two. We’ll assume he is still a baby. His parents, Mary and Joseph are caring for him, still in Bethlehem.
Matthew 2:1-12 (KJV) “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, (2) Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. (3) When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (4) And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. (5) And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, (6) And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (7) Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. (8) And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. (9) When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. (10) When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. (11) And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. (12) And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
Have you heard people talk about having epiphanies? “I had an epiphany!” they say. “A new insight. I just knew what to do.” They are often referring to a sudden flash of understanding, a revelation of some sort. The Gospel passage we always read on this day is the visit of the magi. Is this about an epiphany? If so, what was it? Whose insight should we be examining?
Well, surely Matthew is providing insights into some particular aspects of Jesus.
1.) Matthew makes the case that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jewish people have longed for. He continually connects Jesus’ life to messianic texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the messiah, all nations will pay homage. The very next chapter is about Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, this enables Matthew to position Jesus as a second Moses-emerging from Egypt as a leader of his people.
2.) Even though Matthew appeals to his Jewish heritage as he forms his Jesus story, he also claims that Jesus is not just a Jewish messiah. His message is universal. He has come for the gentile nations as well. It is Matthew who includes 3 gentile women in Jesus’ genealogy. And now these magi from the east. People who would have been regarded as pagans. Although the hymn makes them kings, the wise men were likely astronomers, perhaps Zoroastrian court advisors. Their lavish gifts put them in a wealthy class.
Have you ever noticed that the birth of Jesus according to Luke takes place among the poorest and least valued of society-in a cattle shed attended by shepherds? Matthew, on the other hand, sets the scene in a house where the child is greeted by the rich and powerful; men who have access to the court of Herod. It is so interesting to read the gospels as individual theological treatises to see what the writers are trying to tell us about Jesus.
3.) And this is, I think, the core of this episode. Jesus is in danger from the very beginning. As the story unfolds we discover that Jesus gets no special protection, in fact, seems to be a target for destroyers.
FROM THE BEGINNING, JESUS’ STORY IS INTERWOVEN WITH VIOLENCE AND SUFFERING
From beginning to end, the story of God incarnate in the world is interwoven with all the violence and suffering that the world can serve up. The communion table appears before us today, as a memorial to the last aching gathering of Jesus with those who loved him most. The bread and wine are reminders of betrayal; of broken bodies and broken spirits.
From the very beginning, the good news encompasses suffering. But that is absolutely not the whole story and it is not the end. A colleague says this is not the story of three kings but of two kings-King Herod and King Jesus. It is about the tension between the earthly power that rules the world and the power of God in Jesus which challenges that rule. It is about the tension between Herod’s power, which destroys and kills and the power of Jesus which heals, restores and welcomes.
Epiphany reminds us that hope may start small, like a child. But finally light does break in. The last verse is the hymn-writer’s testimony of faith in Jesus who triumphs over suffering and enables us to do so as well.