The solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ is one of the oldest Christian feasts. Like many of the most ancient feasts, it first was celebrated in the East. The feast was a mystical tapestry weaving together four different events: the Baptism of the Lord; Christ’s first miracle of the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana; the Nativity of Christ; and the visitation of the Magi. Eventually, these four events came to be celebrated separately in the West.
Although the Magi commonly are referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind.
They were magi, or wise men. The word “magi” is derived from the Old Persian name for the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. Zoroastrian priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology. It is fitting, then, that the magi in this ancient mosaic are depicted in Persian clothing: breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.
What I find so charming about this Byzantine mosaic is that the Magi seem to be on the move, following the star. They are intently focused on the task at hand, finding the Christ Child.
But the Gospel for this feast tells us: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way” (Mt 2:12).
It suggests that we, too, must depart from this feast by “another way,” renewed and ready to move through a new liturgical year.
It was traditional on this feast, after the reading of the Gospel, to proclaim the dates in the calendar for the coming celebrations of Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, the Ascension of Jesus Christ, Pentecost, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ and the First Sunday of Advent. This tradition dated from a time when calendars were not readily available. Although calendars now provide the date of Easter and the other feasts of the liturgical year for many years in advance, the Epiphany proclamation still has value. It is a reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of the Lord in the liturgical year and the importance of the great mysteries of faith, which are celebrated each year.
The Roman Missal still provides a formula with appropriate chant for this ancient custom. Perhaps it is a custom worth reviving. (The musical notation is found in Appendix I of the Roman Missal, Third Edition.)
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY, OSB, is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.