At the conclusion of the Advent season we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, popularly known as Christmas. The liturgical season of Christmas lasts for twelve days, beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on January 5. In stores and homes the Christmas trees and decorations are often back in their boxes by noon on December 26, but the celebration that the church awaited through the long, dark weeks of Advent continues into the first days of the New Year. As hours of daylight lengthen, albeit ever so slowly, our thoughts turn to hopes for the year to come.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are followed by the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The Greek word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearing.” The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 commemorates the revelation of the Messiah to three “wise men” (better translated “Magi” or “astrologers”) from the East. As told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, three sages (most likely Middle Eastern, not Oriental, as the well-known carol says) noted the rising of an unusual star in the course of their study of the night sky. They interpreted the star’s appearance as a sign of the birth of an infant king of the Jewish people, and determined to use the star to guide them to him. They first went to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for a Jewish king, but the star led them further and they found the baby and his parents in Bethlehem; there they presented him with royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The story of the Magi and their gifts to the Christ Child is sometimes cited as the origin of our present-day practice of giving gifts at Christmas; however, gift-giving was actually a custom of the Romans during their Saturnalia festival, which celebrated the winter solstice. More significant to the observance of Epiphany is the type of gifts brought to the Christ Child, because it reveals that the astrologers understood the extraordinary nature of this birth. Gold was precious, reserved for a person of great importance, such as a king. Frankincense symbolized sacred worship, and foreshadowed the earthly ministry of the Son of God. Myrrh was a rare and valuable resin used in burial rituals, and foretold the sacrifice that Jesus would make to fulfill God’s plan of redemption. How could three Gentile sages studying the stars arrive at such deep insight into the coming of the Jewish Messiah? Some scholars have suggested that it must have been a revelation from God – a gift of wisdom. That may, in fact, be the greatest treasure of the season, given specifically to non-Jews.
The dual emphasis of the season of Epiphany is on two fundamental aspects of the identity and ministry of Jesus: Christ the Light of the World, and Christ the Hope of the Gentiles. The story of the astrologers who visited the Infant King with their treasured gifts captures both of these elements. The star that summoned and guided them stands for the Light of Christ. Their identity as Gentiles makes clear that God’s Son came to bring the hope of release from sin both to God’s chosen people and also to non-Jews. Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of the Light of the World has the force of, “All the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; all those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. “ (Isaiah 9:2) We must always remember that we (most of whom are not descended from Jewish ancestors) would not have been included in God’s plan of salvation if Messiah had not been sent for us. And it’s equally important to remember that the Light of the World who came for us also came for all people created by God.
While we rejoice in the good news that the Light of the World has come for us, we may wonder how that Light and Hope could possibly be spread from a small obscure village in Judea to all people, Jews and Gentiles, across the world. More about that question in the next blog post.