“We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar.”
It’s in the beautiful hymn “We Three Kings” that most people glean their understanding of the holy day we call “Epiphany.” However, if our only understanding of Epiphany is from that hymn, we are left with an incomplete knowledge of the significance of Epiphany.
Epiphany is celebrated around the world on Jan. 6, known in Christmas music circles as the twelfth day of Christmas. In the United States we transfer the observance of this day to first Sunday after Jan. 1.
In its simplest explanation, Epiphany is the day when, at the time of the birth of Christ, Wise Men from the east came following a star that would lead them to the place where the newborn King of Israel was, laying in the manger. After a brief meeting with King Herod, they found the Christ child and gave him gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. This event is called Epiphany – when the mankind, represented by the Wise Men (sometimes called kings), came to be aware of the birth of Christ, God made man, into our world.
Behind the Story
In the Middle East around Israel at the time of Christ’s birth, the Jewish people were the sole monotheist people. That is to say, the Jewish people believed in one God, Yahweh, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Israel was surrounded by polytheistic nations and empires that believed in many gods. So, while the Jews worshipped one God, the citizens of the Roman Empire worshipped a god of Sun, a god of water, a god of war, a god of agriculture. The Greeks did likewise. Surrounding Israel to the south and east were other native peoples who also worshipped many gods or nature. In the realm of the battle between monotheism (one God) and polytheism (many gods), Israel was like an island of faith in the one God.
There was, however, another civilization not that far from Israel which was also monotheistic: the Persians. The Persians lived in what we today call Iran; they believed in one God. The chief priests in Persia were people were called “magi.” The word magi means “power.” It’s from the word magi that we get words like “magician,” “magistrate” and “your royal majesty.” All these folks – magicians, magistrates and majesty – exercise some form of power.
Daniel and the magi
You may wonder how monotheistic high priests in Persia wound up, gifts in hand, at a stable in Bethlehem. We have to go back several hundred years before Christ to make sense of this. At one point after the Jewish exile to Babylon, but hundreds of year before Jesus was born, a man named Daniel, the famed Old Testament prophet, found favor with King Darius of Persia (note: Persia had conquered Babylon).
King Darius appointed Daniel, who was a Jew, as a great prophet, into a position of great power. In fact, he was considering placing Daniel in authority over the magi. As you could imagine, this went over badly with the magi; hence Daniel landed in the lion’s den.
Once he survived the ordeal by faith in God’s protection, Daniel’s prophecies were given a greater weight of authority. Ultimately, the things Daniel prophesied, especially that there would be a Messiah (Dan 9:24,27), took hold with the magi. His prophecies were deemed worthy of belief.
One of the roles of the magi was that they were kingmakers. Much like the manner in which the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has the authority to crown any new monarch in England, the magi, by the power of the one God, had the authority to confirm anyone who was to be an earthly king. The magi’s role as high priests declared kings “true kings” or “false kings.” This reputation of the magi was learned by the Jewish people during their time of exile; it remained with the Jewish people when they returned to Israel.
Five-hundred years later, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem following a star and seeking a “newborn king of the Jews.” (Mt. 2:2) They wind up visiting with King Herod, who had a lot of questions. Herod’s reaction to the presence of the Magi was one of fear as these were king-makers. While not part of the Roman nor Jewish system of belief or government, the Magi held sway and possessed the cachet of traditional authority.
So, here we had Herod, a king, being visited by men who approve new kings; perhaps the most awkward conversation in the entirety of the Biblical-era must have taken place.
Herod consulted his own religious leaders and scribes, and no doubt they reminded him of the prophecies in the Scriptures that the promised one, the Messiah, a king would be born in Bethlehem. Herod, hides his fears and expresses to the Magi a sincere interest in the journey; he asks only that they keep him informed if they find the one whom they seek. Herod’s motives were not pure; he sought the death of anyone who challenged his reign.
We know the rest of the story: The Wise Men depart from Herod (and never return to see him again) and they do find the promised one. Following the Star of Bethlehem, the three Wise Men make their way to a babe in a manger. And they prostrate themselves before him and give gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt 2:11). These are significant as:
• Gold is what is given to a king to confirm his kingship.
• Frankincense is incense only offered up to God, to confirm his divinity
• Myrrh is a perfume embalming ointment used to prepare bodies for death, to confirm his humanity
So, the Magi understood this child to be a king, the immortal God (the one God of monotheism) and a human being who would face death one day.
These Magi from Persia believe that there was only one true God. On this moment of the Epiphany, these Wise Men come to Israel, and confirm that this is that one true God. This child in a manger was not just recognized by the Jewish people in Bethlehem, but by royalty: Wise Men from the east. He was not just to be revered and recognized by the people of Israel, but by the entire world, a world for which he would be the savior.
Our Catholic tradition tells us more to help understand this great moment in human history, when Christ became manifest to the world into which he was born.
Tradition tells us that these Wise Men were considered as kings. While perhaps merely a title of honor, the tradition of the kingly title is appropriate as we understand why the kings of Earth would prostrate themselves before he who is called the king of kings.
The Bible doesn’t say there were three Wise Men. However it does tell us there were three gifts. So a reasonable deduction could put the number at three. After all, who goes to meet the newborn king without a gift? In the Eastern tradition of the church, the number of Wise Men is 12.
The Wise Men, identified as priestly rulers from areas of the Persian (then Parthian) empire, are ascribed as Balthazar, King of Arabia; Melchior, King of Persia; and Gasper, King of India.
It’s a long-held Catholic tradition that during the Mass on Epiphany, after the reading of the Gospel, the calendar of key dates for the church’s year is proclaimed. This dates back to the era before calendars were commonly in use. Back then, people did not know the key dates for the upcoming church year; and so, on Epiphany, the upcoming dates were “proclaimed.”
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.