As most of you know my wife loves history. Together we have come to realize that history matters. Building on the past can be a solid ground for creating a future for our children. Knowing why we do what we do is important for us and our children to understand. Many of us grew up with traditions that have been discarded, and this is generally for one reason. When we don’t know why we do something it is easy to drop it as unimportant because it requires extra effort for no apparent reason.
How many of us have sung the song We Three Kings? It was written in 1857 by John Hopkins, Jr., for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in New York. “We three kings of Orient are / Bearing gifts we traverse afar / Field and fountain, moor and mountain / Following yonder star.” This is a song we might have sung last month at a Christmas Eve service. And most of us leave the service somewhat muddle-headedly thinking that the night Christ was born He was visited by the Magi. Enter Epiphany. But just what is it? What does it mean?
Epiphany marks the manifestation of the light of God’s revelation in the Incarnation. Different manifestations of Christ’s glory and divinity have been celebrated throughout history. In the past, faithful saints reflected on Christ’s baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Nativity and, of course, the visit of the Magi. This last action is most commonly associated with Epiphany today.
January 6 is known as Epiphany on the Christian calendar. It is sometimes referred to as the “Twelfth Night,” the 12th Day of Christmas. The song We Three Kings is about Epiphany—the event of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet ’But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.’ When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” All this happening the same night as Jesus’ birth would be little less accomplishable as it would be for Santa Claus to visit every one of our homes.
Some cultures (Latin) actually refer to Epiphany as Three King’s Day, Dia de los Tres Reyes or la Fiesta de Reyes.
You may not know it, but one American city has made a national name for itself over Epiphany. Many of you have heard of Mardi Gras. In fact if we gave a quiz and asked where the celebration of Mardi Gras takes place, virtually all of us would answer New Orleans. Yet, how many of us would know that its tradition has it roots in Epiphany?
Mardi Gras begins January 6 with Epiphany and continues until the day before Ash Wednesday. The day before Ash Wednesday is known as Fat Tuesday, hence the excesses presently accompanying the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. The New Orleans tradition is believed to have begun in the 1870’s and borrowed heavily from European traditions. As part of this celebration, a cake known as King’s Cake is baked. The cake tradition is thought to have begun in 12th century France, although some trace its roots beyond this. The cake is an oval shape, and some believe this represents the path the wise men took to throw Herod off the path. Others believe it represents unity. A small trinket is placed in the cake, representing Christ, and those who eat it hope to be the one getting the piece with the trinket in it.
Epiphany also sets the background for the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.
But what does the word epiphany mean? It is a Greek word that means manifestation or unveiling. Blair Sadler writes, “On the day of manifestation, we venerate the adoration of the Magi. The Magi were wise men who are often portrayed as kings. This depiction derives from the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Psalms that ‘all kings shall fall down before him’ (72:11). The fact that the Magi bowed down before Jesus symbolizes the submission of earthly powers to a heavenly power. The Magi brought Christ symbolic gifts of kingly gold, priestly frankincense, and embalming myrrh as a foreshadowing of Christ’s death. The Magi ‘beheld the very glory of God that day—for in the city of David, the Savior was born. As a result, Epiphany is the celebration of the ultimate proclamation of good news.’ (Christmas Spirit 168)” (“Fall on Your Knees,” Arx Axiom #8, King’s Meadow Study Center, December 2006.)
And, what does this matter to us today? As Peter Leithart says, “Epiphany, which began on January 6, means ‘Manifestation,’ and the season commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the Magi, the firstfruits of the gatherings of the Gentiles. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus came as the Light of the world, and that we are sent to call the nations to that Light. It reminds us that the mission is not a program of the church, but the very essence of the church. Epiphany season is an exhortation to be an “apostolic” church, a sent out people.”
The Gentiles! Most of us! Epiphany celebrates the first invitation to the Gentiles to become a children of God. Sounds to me like something to celebrate. Sounds like something to remember. Sounds like something to teach our children.
So you see that history does matter. What we teach our children and hold dear to our hearts does matter. If time travel were really possible, I am sure that the French immigrants who came to Louisiana and began an Epiphany tradition would never believe the degradation that Mardi Gras has become today. We must continue to recover the past and continue to deepen our understanding of who we are called to serve.
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