The Feast of the Magi

 

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, 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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.’
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.’” (New American Bible, Matthew 2:1-12)

Isn’t this the Feast of the Epiphany?

Yes, it is. It’s also called the Feast of the Three Kings and is known by a few other names.

Whatever happened to that feast?

The Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas, January 6th. In the United States, the feast has been moved to the Sunday between January 2nd and January 8th.

What does the term epiphany mean?

According to Merriam Webster, the term epiphany is defined as a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.

What do we commemorate or remember on this day?

On this feast, we commemorate the manifestation of Jesus to the whole world. Jesus is revealed to the magi who have come from the East bearing gifts and are the first individuals from the Gentile world to see or encounter the Savior of the world.

As it states in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (are made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”).” (#528)

Is there any history behind this feast?  According to About.com:

“Like many of the most ancient Christian feasts, Epiphany was first celebrated in the East, where it has been held from the beginning almost universally on January 6. Today, among both Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the feast is known as Theophany – the revelation of God to man.

Epiphany originally celebrated four different events, in the following order of importance: the Baptism of the Lord; Christ’s first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana; the Nativity of Christ, Christmas; and the visitation of the Wise Men or Magi.. Each of these is a revelation of God to man: At Christ’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God is heard, declaring that Jesus is His Son; at the wedding in Cana, the miracle reveals Christ’s divinity; at the Nativity, the angels bear witness to Christ, and the shepherds, representing the people of Israel, bow down before Him; and at the visitation of the Magi, Christ’s divinity is revealed to the Gentiles – the other nations of the earth.

Eventually, the celebration of the Nativity was separated out, in the West, into Christmas; and shortly thereafter, Western Christians adopted the Eastern feast of the Epiphany, still celebrating the Baptism, the first miracle, and the visit from the Wise Men. Thus, Epiphany came to mark the end of Christmastide – the Twelve Days of Christmas, which began with the revelation of Christ to Israel in His Birth and ended with the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles at Epiphany.

Over the centuries, the various celebrations were further separated in the West, now the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6, and the wedding at Cana is commemorated on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord.

In many parts of Europe, the celebration of Epiphany is at least as important as the celebration of Christmas. In Italy and other Mediterranean countries, – the day on which the Wise Men brought their gifts to the Christ Child—while in Northern Europe, it’s not unusual to give gifts on both Christmas and Epiphany (often with smaller gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas in between).”

BTW, what is a magi?  Oh, and how many magi were there?

The term “magi” is the plural of magus. You can see the root of magic and magician in the word. The magi were a priestly caste from ancient Persia. A magus, the singular, was an expert in the sciences of the time, especially astrology. How many magi were there? We don’t know because Scripture doesn’t give us a number or their names. We say three due to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh mentioned, but over history the number has varied, once there were as many as twelve.

What are their names?

Do we have any relics of them? Traditionally, from the 6th century on or so, the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar have been associated with them. According to tradition, the relics of the Magi are at the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.

Is there any symbolism attached to the gifts presented to Jesus?

Yes, in fact, there is. According to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website: “Gold – a symbol of wealth and power identifies the recipient as a king. Frankincense – the crystalized resinous sap of a tree used as incense and as an offering, is symbolic of prayer. Myrrh – another resinous tree sap was used in healing liniments, and as an embalming ointment. (http://www.usccb.org)

• What are some activities that we can do on this day as a family or a faith community?

o Try making Epiphany Bread. Here’s a link for a recipe: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/recipes/view.cfm?id=1325\

o The blessing of homes is a tradition in some cultures. Here’s a link to a family ceremony: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=49

o On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, National Migration Week begins. Pray for the protection of refugee families fleeing persecution that they may find refuge and comfort.

 

Bibliography

The Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday Press, 1997.

Catholicism.About.com http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/Epiphany.htm. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

CatholicCulture.org http://www.catholicculture.org. 2014. Web. 13 Dec 2014.

Merriam Webster http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

The New American Bible. The Vatican, 06 Nov. 2002. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM>

“Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/christmas/christmas-january-4.cfm>.

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