Epiphany – a manifestation, a showing forth, especially of the divine. In the Christian church calendar, it is the name given to the period immediately following the Christmas season. The Feast of the Epiphany, which falls on January 6th, in the Western church commemorates the visit of the Wise Men from the East to the Christ child, an event understood to be the first revelation of his divinity to the Gentiles. In the Eastern church there is a dual emphasis, with the primary focus on the revelation of Jesus’ divinity at his baptism.
Little is told about these Wise Men in scriptural text, but a rich tradition has grown up about them. Because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – they are usually pictured as being three in number. They are frequently referred to as kings, a designation which dates from the third century, but more likely they were members of the Persian priestly class known as Magi and widely respected for their deep spiritual wisdom. Very early paintings show them in Persian garb. They studied signs in the heavens, and were willing to embark on a long and dangerous journey in order to bring homage to an obscure foreign-born infant who had been revealed to them as a great king.
While St. Matthew gives us the story of the Wise Men, St. Luke tells of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Here, too, there is a kind of epiphany event. Two elderly worshipers, Simeon and Anna, both recognize the child Jesus as the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of
, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” Led by the Spirit, Simeon enters the temple, takes the child in his arms, and praises God. The hymn he sings, known in church liturgy as the Nunc Dimittis, expresses his joy. “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel .” This hymn is still sung in many churches at the end of the Communion service, especially during Lent, and in services of evening prayer. In it Simeon recognizes that the revelation of Jesus as the Christ of God is intended for both Gentiles and Jews. Israel
Anna is a prophet, an aged widow who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” She too approaches Jesus and his parents, praises God, and speaks about the child to all who will listen. Mary and Joseph, who have simply come to the temple to fulfill the sacrificial requirements for a firstborn son, are amazed at these events.
Taken together, these two narratives paint a striking picture of those to whom Christ’s divinity was first revealed. The Magi were foreigners, strangers in
Judea. Anna and Simeon, though they were Jews who worshipped regularly in the temple in , were devout common folk, not part of the religious hierarchy. There is an “otherness” about all of them which puts them outside the establishment of the day. Jerusalem
The book of Acts records some of the struggle that the early church had in deciding for whom the Gospel message is intended. Some said that Jesus was the Messiah only for the Jews. There were long debates as to whether or not a Gentile believer had to follow Jewish law first in order to be baptized as a Christian. The Epiphany narratives make clear that from the very beginning revelation was available to all who would hear, Jew and Gentile alike.
It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that in today’s practice the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany has been so greatly overshadowed by the celebration of Christmas. The two should be taken together to form a complete picture of the Incarnation. The ancient creeds teach us that Jesus, the Christ, is both fully human and fully divine. In the babe in the manger of Christmas time we see the human in all its vulnerability. In the infant king of Epiphany we see the divine, Immanuel, God with us. May we all find hope and joy in the mystery of the Incarnation at this Epiphany time.