The Adoration of the Magi, da Fabriano, Uffizi Museum, Florence, Italy.
[The Magi] prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Let’s first begin with a few clarifications. There is no evidence that the Magi were three kings, let alone their names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. In fact, there is no indication of the number of visitors at all; we get the idea of three from the three gifts, and that the gifts were of such quality that they “had to” have been given by three kings. Then there is the word “Magi”. It is based on the Greek μάγοι, (mágoi), which itself comes from Old Persian (or Old Iranian) maguŝ, itself from the Avestan word magâunô, an ancient language used only in relation to the Zoroastrian religion. It is the name given to the religious, or priestly, class into which the founding holy man Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) was born. In other words, it is a bit of a mystery. The Zoroastrian wise men were renowned in the ancient world for their knowledge of the stars, which in those days were considered to be highly influential in human affairs and fortunes. So learned were they that they were thought to have magical powers; our word “magic” comes from the same source. It certainly explains King Herod’s ready belief in what they had to say about the birth of the “newborn king of the Jews”. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh also echo their insightful skills, respecting the baby Jesus as king, priest and one who will see death (myrrh is used to anoint dead bodies). Magi also appear in various places in the Old Testament in various situations. Some last thoughts about Zoroastrianism. It still exists today, though only just. Today Zoroaster’s followers are called Parsees. They believe that fire is holy, symbolic of the one creator God. Its monotheistic teachings almost certainly influenced the three modern great monotheistic religions. Their religion is about 3500 years old. Some more information can be found here.
Then there is the word epiphany itself. You won’t find it used too often outside this feast, so why is it used here? It too comes from Greek, ἐπιφάνεια, (epipháneia), meaning an appearance or revelation. It is used for today’s feast because in some way God is revealed, seen in the star leading the Magi (look at today’s first reading for some perspective). Other Scriptural epiphanies are the Lord’s baptism (to be celebrated next Sunday), with the voice of God and God’s Spirit in the form of a dove, and at the Nativity itself with choirs of angels appearing to the shepherds. An epiphany states that God is present in some direct and clear way, in this case in the newborn baby. It is also used sometimes to describe a eureka moment of understanding or insight.
So this is a special feast, standing on its own in a special way. Remember that the Magi would not have been Jewish, therefore Gentiles. Yet they accepted that their epiphany was leading them to the birth of the non-Zoroastrian King of the Jews. Their appearance was a premonition of the acceptance of all people as acceptable followers of the Lord which would become a huge controversy in the early church (see chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles). Yet their acceptance had been foreseen at the very birth of Jesus, with the honor accorded to the newborn babe by the (Gentile) Magi. Just to add more confusion, today’s feast is also sometimes known as “Little Christmas”. In the early years of the church, this was indeed Christmas Day, and today many accept that although December 25 is Christmas Day, the Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season, the 12th night, when decorations come down. Hence the progression of those who recognized the divine in the birth of Jesus are 1) Mary and Joseph, 2) the Jews, seen in the shepherds, 3) the Gentiles (therefore the rest of the world) in the form of the Magi, as indicated in today’s second reading. And so, finally, it is down to each of us to kneel in adoration, accepting that the light has come into the world, driving out the darkness and welcoming in eternal life and light both in our world, and, perhaps more importantly, inside each of us. So each one of us must experience our own epiphany, acknowledging the presence of a God of love and light, who welcomes each of us into that same light and life.
The Three Kings, Church of St. Martin of Tours, Bronx, NY, USA.