Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. In Christian tradition the story of the "magi from the east" has been seen as a sign of the manifestation of the Lord Jesus to all nations. It is usually celebrated on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas. Although not such a big deal in the USA, the Feast of the Epiphany rivals Christmas in Europe and Latin America. Today, the schools are closed in my neighboring town of Bridgeport because of the large Hispanic population.
The gospel account of the Magi from St. Matthew is skimpy. It only tells us that "magi from the east" followed the star "to the place where the child was." It doesn't say that there were three of them, or that they were kings. But tradition and art have added these familiar features to the story.
There are three kings probably because of the three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--which are associated with royalty. In art one of the Kings is usually portrayed as an old man, another is middle aged, while the third is young and beardless. They symbolize all the ages of mankind. Tradition called them wise men because the word magi came to mean "magician", or one familiar with the secrets and mysteries of nature. It is common to think of them as astronomers or astrologers because of the famous star that they followed to Bethlehem.
Although legends have embellished the story of the Magi, there is an historical core to their story. There were, after all, "magi" in the East. The members of the ruling priestly class of the Persian empire to the east of Palestine had for centuries been called "magi." They would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies because so many Jews had emigrated to Persia in the centuries before Christ. Their journey to Bethlehem would have been over a thousand miles but it would have followed established and frequently traveled trade routes.
The reaction of King Herod to their news certainly fits what history has told us about that cruel despot. In those days it was common for rulers to kill anyone who might be a potential threat to their crown. Herod murdered his favorite wife--he had ten--and five of his own sons when he suspected that they were plotting against him. The slaughter of the Innocents which St. Matthew describes a little later in this chapter is certainly in line with Herod's character.
What is the importance of the visit of the Magi? Why is the Feast of the Epiphany one of the greatest in the Christian calendar?
We know that after the Resurrection of Jesus the first converts to Christianity, even the Apostles themselves, had difficulty in understanding that the mission of Jesus was not only to the Jews. There was a great debate in the early Church where some argued that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian. In the epistles of St. Paul we see that this issue centered around the question of circumcision, that particular rite which signified one's membership in the nation of Israel.
In fact, the very first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem precisely to discuss this very issue. There St. Paul, inspired by his own personal encounter with the risen Jesus, argued that the message of the Christ was for all mankind. As he said in the reading Letter to the Ephesians,
it has now been revealed
to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus...
For Paul the Messiah promised to the Jews was to be a light to all nations. That first Council agreed with Paul especially after the Apostles Peter and James came around. Perhaps it is only after the question had been decided that the early Christians began to re-examine the words and life of Jesus for new meaning.
He came to call sinners. He cured the Roman centurion's servant. The Sermon on the Mount did not mention race, creed, or color. He praised the Good Samaritan and insisted that the foreigner was more a neighbor to the beaten Jewish traveler than his countrymen who passed him by on the road to Jericho.
They even discovered an incident at the very beginning of the earthly life of Jesus that indicated that He had come as a light to all the nations. The "Magi" had come from the East to bring Him gifts and do Him homage. On the other hand, the despised ruler of the Jews had only sought to put Him to death. Apparently, Herod and his advisers couldn't even see the star that led the "Magi" to the child.
The Christmas season comes to an end with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are completed. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,
Wise men still seek Him.