An Epiphany for the World
This weekend, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Traditionally taking place twelve days after Christmas, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the first stretch of Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar. This feast day even has a presence in popular secular culture: it lends its name to Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, and the twelve-day stretch from Christmas to Epiphany is the of origin the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
But why is this specific moment in Jesus’ early infancy, when “Three Wise Men came from country afar," so important as to merit its own feast day in the Church?
Before Jesus’ ministry and teaching, it was thought that the Messiah of whom the prophets wrote in the Torah was coming to save only the Israelites. The Jewish people knew from the holy book and the teachings of their faith that there would be specific signs of the Messiah’s coming. However, the Magi were priests of the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, whose intense scrutiny of the stars and planets gave them a reputation for astrology in the ancient world. Their work in astrology laid down the early foundations of astronomy, making them the intellectual forefathers of scientists, particularly astronomers and astrophysicists. It's safe to assume they would have been intellectually aware of the Messianic prophecies and teachings of Judaism, but it was not a component of the religion they themselves practiced.
This feast day marks the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles, represented in the Gospel by the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. It shows us that the Incarnation took place for the salvation of the entirety of humanity and, as the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI often proclaimed, that there is no incompatibility between faith and reason.
In addition to defining the word “epiphany” as this Christian feast day and as the physical appearance of a supernatural being, both Merriam-Webster and Oxford Languages provide another definition: a moment of the sudden insight or understanding of the meaning or essential nature of something. We see this demonstrated in the Gospel, in the Magi’s recognition of the utmost significance of the Star of Bethlehem leading them to embark on their now-famous journey and in the gifts they chose to give to Christ Child. They gave him gold to pay homage of kingship, frankincense to honor his divinity, and myrrh to signify his humanity — in other words, their gifts showed they understood who it was they had found in Bethlehem.
In the whole narrative of the Nativity, we’re shown that there are numerous ways to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus Christ. In the narrative of the Epiphany, we’re reminded that some come into that life-changing moment only after a long journey of seeking answers to life’s biggest questions. As we, for one more Sunday of Christmastide, proclaim our joyful welcome to the Infant King, let us ask God to open our hearts and our parish to all those whose faith journeys lead them to our door bearing their own gifts to offer for the greater glory of the Kingdom.