Like all ancient feasts, Epiphany has gone through some changes. The Greek word for epiphany could mean either a visible manifestation of a god or the visit of a ruler who was venerated as a god. In the third century, a group called Gnostics celebrated the baptism of the Lord in the belief that it was at that moment the Son of God was really born into the world. It is thought that Epiphany was introduced in reaction to this to celebrate the birth of Jesus, especially in the Eastern churches.
As happens over time, the purpose of the feast changed. Following the West, the Eastern churches began celebrating the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi on Dec. 25, and the Baptism of the Lord on Epiphany. In the West we separated the two events, and now we celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas and the coming of the Magi on Epiphany.
In 1857, when John Henry Hopkins wrote “We Three Kings,” Epiphany was the day gifts were exchanged to represent the giving of gifts by the magi. During the 1800s, Christmas trees were taken down on Epiphany. In those days, all the gifts and treats were hung on the tree, unlike the contemporary custom of wrapping gifts and placing them under the tree. Only when the Christmas tree was taken down did children receive their gifts.
John Henry Hopkins realized that children no longer connected the gifts on the tree with the gifts brought by the Magi. He wrote his hymn as a gift for his nieces and nephews to help them reconnect gift-giving with the spirit of the giving of gifts by the Magi.
Our three readings are about God’s gifts. From Isaiah we call to mind the wonderful promise of God to restore Jerusalem (meaning both the city and the people), which had suffered exile in Babylon, to something even greater than its former glory. This was a gift of hope. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells of the gift of unity that God has given, a gift of peace and understanding for all people as they stand before God.
We have no idea how many Magi there were or where they came from. There are certainly reasons for Matthew presenting these strange “astrologers” as coming from the East, but the more important issue is the gifts themselves. Matthew is teaching us about what God has given us in the person of Christ; therefore, the gifts of the magi are highly symbolic. Gold was a gift given to a king. Incense was given to a priest for making offerings to God; therefore incense was associated with the divine. Myrrh was used to perfume the body of a person who had died. Originally intended to help hide the smell of death, it became a symbol of suffering and death.
All three gifts reveal something of the person and purpose of Jesus, and although today is about celebrating what God has given us, it is a good occasion to look to the Magi and ask ourselves, “What do I bring to give to God?” The gifts we give — or don’t give — reveal something about us and our faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
After our “gifts” have been placed on the altar, the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” Are our gifts acceptable? Have we given easy gifts like the gift cards we give when we’re not sure what to give or don’t have time to select a gift? While gift cards might assure that the recipients can go buy whatever they want, do gift cards really speak about our affection?
Are the gifts we give on the altar to God merely superficial? Are they gifts given because that is what we are supposed to do? Before Christmas, many shoppers buy many things and only later decide who gets what. Do we buy gifts based on what we like or on what the people receiving them like? Do we give God what seems sufficient, or do we give a loving sacrifice? Some people save all year to be able to afford one special gift. Others just buy gifts because they look good or are affordable.
What gifts do parents treasure the most? What gifts are saved for years and years? The gifts they keep are the ones handmade by their children. From one point of view, the gifts might be considered ugly, just so much paste, glitter and magic marker; but from a parent’s point of view, they are the most beautiful gifts they’ve ever received.
We know what God has given to us: the life of his Son. How have our gifts to God matched up? Are they precious in the eyes of the Lord? Do we make the connection between what God has given us and what we give in return?