The Epiphany,

…behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”    Matthew 2:1b-2

There is so much tradition and history around the birth of Jesus that it can become very confusing. Take the feast of the Epiphany, for instance. The word itself means a “manifestation” or “showing” and the ancient Greeks used the word to describe someone who had experienced a visit from the gods, therefore had witnessed an epiphany. The shepherds in Luke’s gospel had experienced an epiphany when the angels directed them to the place the child was born. Hence the later visit of people from the east (hence Gentile, not Jewish) guided by a heavenly body in today’s gospel, accepted that they had seen the newborn savior, and had therefore had an epiphany of the divine. Some eastern Orthodox churches use this feast as Christmas (and it is often called “Little Christmas” by others). Others in the Orthodox use this feast to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, as at that time John the Baptist had seen the anointing of Jesus by the Holy Spirit “as of a dove” and heard a voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s Son. So he had experienced an epiphany. Therefore Christmas, the arrival of the three Magi and the Lord’s Baptism are all epiphanies.

Traditionally, the western Christian celebration of the Epiphany takes place on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th (when Christmas decorations come down, though others do this on the later feast of Candlemas). But some Catholic bishops’ conferences have moved the feast to the Sunday nearest January 1st. Currently there is a movement in the Catholic church to return it to the traditional January 6, the 12th day. However, the entire Western Christian tradition of this feast is to celebrate the arrival of the “Magi” (Greek: Magoi) to the (traditional) stable to present three mysterious gifts. Note in the gospel there is no mention at all of how many Magi arrived; it is through the number and quality of the gifts that a tradition of three kings arose. But the word Magi does not mean kings. When you find out that the word “magic” comes from the same root meaning, namely power or knowledge, then more confusion starts. English translations of this word in Scripture have included “wise men” and “astronomers” but scholars have unearthed this word from many ancient civilizations, sometimes meaning whole peoples, sometimes priests or other holy men. Others claim that the magi were Zoroastrians from Persia (now Iran) whose descendants are the Parsees, most of whom now reside in the area around Mumbai in India. Interestingly, Zoroastrians worship one God. So to call the three (?) mysterious visitors to the birthplace of Jesus as three kings, although inaccurate, is easier to understand. 

Note that Scripture tells us they first arrived at the court of King Herod to enquire where the newborn King of the Jews could be found. This king, scholars tell us, had become increasingly paranoid in his old age, responsible for the execution (or murder) of three of his sons from his ten wives. Therefore to hear of a “King of the Jews” (as he himself considered himself to be exactly that) was not good news. It set the scene for the later “massacre of the innocents” when all newborn baby boys in his kingdom were put to the sword, thereby eliminating any other King of the Jews. This was the reason Joseph led his family to Egypt having been warned and advised in a dream to do so.

So what was this whole event about? These mysterious visitors were Gentile, non-Jews. Anyone “from the east” would be classified as such. Most of the Jews at the time of Jesus were to be found within the Roman Empire which, to them, represented “the world”. There were some Jewish communities in Syria and Babylonia dating from the time of the exile when the Babylonian king had conquered Jerusalem and sent many of them to Babylon, some 500 years before. It is unlikely that the magi would have been from there. They were Gentile. The heavenly body which had guided them there was a manifestation of the divine (an epiphany) and they duly recognized the child as of God by kneeling and doing him homage. The baby was a manifestation of God, hence an epiphany. 

Then there are the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are not, nor ever will be, gifts for a newborn child, except perhaps the gold. They are further manifestations of the child’s identity as king, priest and sacrifice, myrrh being an unguent used on bodies of the recently dead. How did they know all this? They were “wise men”, holders of knowledge no-one else had. Where did they get this knowledge from? Ah, now there’s a question. I don’t know. They were clearly attuned to the Holy, even to the extent of being warned in a dream not to return to the paranoid king of Judea. So God must have been the source of their information. They leave, never to reappear in the Christian Scriptures. 

Apart from the child Jesus being lost in the Temple and found discussing theology with the priests there, nothing more is said about the Lord until the time of his baptism. But the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke have, as it were, set the scene for Jesus’ mission. This man was clearly of God and from God if you accept those narratives. All was set for Jesus to fulfill his vocation from God, to be the Messiah.


The Resurrection, Raffaellino del Garbo, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.