Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany of our Lord. The Epiphany is also referred to as “Three Kings Day” or “Little Christmas”. It traditionally falls within the octave of Christmas and remembers the arrival of the magi or “wise men” to the infant Jesus.
Epiphany comes from the Greek word epipháneia which means manifestation or appearance. Both translations are appropriate for describing this day. As we know the wise men appeared before the infant Jesus after following the star and receiving orders from Herod to send word back of his location. Some theologians will say that is the day Christ manifested himself to humanity.
A true Jewish man who was familiar with scripture would have memorized the prophecies told of the coming of the Messiah so for the Jewish faithful, and the Gentiles too, Christ through his incarnation brought these prophecies to manifestation.
There are a few traditions around the celebration of the Epiphany including the blessing of one's home with the initials of the wise men inscribed in chalk above the doorway. More orthodox celebrations may include a wise men cake and the removal of Christmas decorations marking the end of the Christmas period. (sorry Candlemas is to long to have them up until)
Of course it’s only fitting that in today’s Gospel we read the story of the wise men following the star to the newborn. They rode through Jerusalem, the central hub of Jewish culture, asking where the king of the Jews had been laid. Herod saw these gentiles asking for the new king and became paranoid someone was coming for his throne. He showed piety to the wise men and ordered they bring him back good news when they found the new king, they were granted passage through Judea freely.
What is significant to notice is when the wise men finished paying Jesus homage they returned to their homeland but by a different route. A change in direction has deep biblical significance as it signifies the traveler has changed or has been converted. Seeing the manifested messiah for the first time put them onto a higher road to live by. Just as John the Baptist leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the sight of Mary pregnant with Jesus, so too did the wise men become overwhelmed with joy.
The wise men also brought three gifts along with them to show homage to their new king, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The wise men knew of the royal dignity of the infant before them and thus each gift was a part of this recognition. St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Matthew wrote “The Magi found three things in Christ, namely, royal dignity: “he shall reign as king and deal wisely.”(Jer. 23:5) and therefore they offered gold in tribute. The greatness of the priesthood: and therefore frankincense, as a sacrifice.Man’s morality: and therefore, myrrh.”
You could also look at the three gifts as an early typology of our baptism as priest, prophet, and king, thus why the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism on Epiphany. You would offer frankincense to a priest to be used at the sacrifice, gold to a king (give to Caesar what is Caesars…”) as a royal tax most kingdoms had, and myrrh, a sticky substance used to bind things together and as a medicine, the prophets mended and healed the Israelites in their time of despair, they fixed their relationships with God. The wise men brought gifts to accurately represent a different part of the infant Christ and what he would go on to do.
In this Christmas season, I hope you’ll find joy and be overwhelmed like the wise men at the sight of the infant Jesus in the manger. Feel the unconditional love of God, who provides you with the strength you need to take a new path, to help manifest the love of God in this world. Do not fear those who desire earthly power, for they will face the one true throne one day.