In the Western Church, at least, it seems that the feast of the Epiphany never gets enough attention. We sing “We Three Kings” at Mass and maybe take a look at the Wise Men in our Nativity scene, if it hasn’t yet been dismantled. We might be lucky enough to snack on a king cake, watching our bites carefully, of course. But in a flash, the feast is behind us, and we usually forget about it until next year. In an attempt to take better note of Epiphany — this year celebrated Jan. 6 — here are some things you may not have known about this special feast:
— Epiphany means “manifestation,” and before the feast centered primarily on the three Wise Men, it represented three times that Christ manifested himself: at the Baptism in the Jordan, when a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;” at the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus manifests his divinity by performing his first miracle; and with the arrival of the Magi, when Jesus is manifest not simply as the savior of the Jews but of the whole world.
— In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is known as “theophany” (the manifestation of God), and many Orthodox celebrate Christmas closer to this feast.
— The visit of the Magi to Jesus is only recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing to an audience of Jewish people. Based on Scripture, we can’t be 100 percent sure that there were precisely three Wise Men, but that is the number associated with the travelers because Scripture does say that the travelers brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
— Each of the three gifts brought by the Wise Men contains symbolism. The gold represents the kingship of Jesus — that he is a descendant of the royal line of David. The frankincense represents Jesus’ divinity — that he alone is worthy of being worshipped. And the myrrh, an aromatic used in Jewish burial practice, represents his humanity and indicates that Jesus was born to die.
— The visit of the Magi to the Christ Child is about not one pilgrimage, but two. The first was the physical pilgrimage, where they followed the star of Bethlehem to find Jesus in the manger. The second pilgrimage began when the kings knelt to worship him. As Pope Benedict XVI explained in an address to young people at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, “Outwardly, their journey was now over. They had reached their goal. But at this point a new journey began for them, an inner pilgrimage which changed their whole lives. ... They had to change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be.”
This Epiphany, as Christ continues to manifest himself in our lives, let us, too, seek to be changed anew.