The festival of the Epiphany falls on the 6th of January but may also be celebrated on a Sunday near that date. “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation.” Whereas the celebration of Christmas began in the west and was taken up by the Eastern Church, Epiphany began in the east and spread west. In Eastern Christianity it is actually the feast of the baptism of Jesus. But the Western Church keeps it primarily as the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem to worship the new-born child and celebrates the baptism later. But we might well ask, if it is about appearing, who is actually manifesting and appearing to whom?
The Wise Men appear in Bethlehem (and in our cribs)
But the more important manifestation is not their appearance but that of Jesus himself
On this day he reveals who he really is – God’s Word-made-flesh and the light of the world
Inevitably we tend to focus on the Wise Men’s journey to Christ from the east. But they journeyed because they were drawn there – drawn by the light of the star which led them to the true light in the manger.
The epiphany of Christ is the manifestation of his drawing power, his magnetic ability to attract us. That is demonstrated not only at the beginning when the shepherds and wise men are drawn to the crib, but later and more powerfully, at the end, on the cross: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32).
In the east this festival is called the “Feast of Light” because God manifested his glory in Christ. But his great light also revealed shadows: the duplicity of Herod and his cruel slaughter of the innocent children (like so many tyrants, dictators and terrorists, before and after him, including in our own day) in a futile attempt to quench the light. Yet, “the light shines on in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1.5). Tradition has made these ‘Wise Men’ into three kings but they were probably astrologers, watching the movements of the stars - in the ancient world a respected practice, not associated as it is today with charlatanism.
As for the gifts the Magi brought (gold, frankincense and myrrh), their meaning is well explained in a verse from an Epiphany hymn, Bethlehem of Noblest Cities:
Offerings of mystic meaning!—
Incense doth the God disclose;
Gold a Royal child proclaimeth;
Myrrh a future tomb foreshows.
But the manifestation of Christ in Bethlehem is not just about a past event: rather it should awaken us to his constant manifestation in our own lives.
Collects of the Epiphany
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
mercifully grant that we,
who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light
discern the glory of your presence in your Son,
the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.