Monday, January 4

We Three Kings: The Feast of the Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany (meaning "manifestation" or "striking appearance"), also known as Three Kings Day, is a feast celebrated in many Christian traditions both in the East and West. Although it originated in the East, in the Western churches, this day is generally celebrated on January 6 as a way of remembering the visit of the wise men (magi) to Jesus, as well as his first appearance to Gentiles. It also remembers two other events, namely, the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan as well as his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. The day can also serve as a reminder to us to enact social justice and carry out works of mercy, as will be discussed at the end. The date of this feast goes back at least around AD 230, as we read in the Didascalia Apostolorum, "The Apostles have also decreed that they should make the day of the Epiphany of our Savior to be the beginning of the yearly feasts, on the 6th of January according to the number of the months of the Greeks." The feast is later mentioned by several other Christian authors, such as St. Epiphananius (AD 310-403), and was celebrated early on in monasteries, as well as during pilgrimages. In fact, in one of the earliest accounts of Christian pilgrimages the Spanish sister Egeria (AD 385) says, "Now it fell out by a very happy chance that the day on which we came to the station of Arabia was the eve of the most blessed day of the Epiphany, and the vigils were to be kept in the church on the same day."

Various denominations such as the Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodist and United Church of Christ celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Prior to the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Church held the Epiphany as an eight-day feast, which began on January 6 and carried on until the eighth day (octave) on January 13. Of interest, Irish Christians refer to the Feast as "Little Christmas," whereas those in Spain, Cuba and some Latin American countries refer to it as El Día de Reyes (the Day of the Kings). In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the focus of the feast is on the "shining forth" of Jesus at his baptism as the Savior and as part of the Trinity, hence, the Eastern Church refers to the Feast as the Theophany, meaning, "God shining forth."[1] Notably, in European countries such as Spain and Italy, the Feast of the Epiphany is much more emphasized than Christmas day, and gifts are given on this Feast as opposed to Christmas.

When I was on pilgrimage two years ago in Italy, I had heard about the figure of La Befana (the name being a corruption of the word Epifania, for Epiphany). The figure of Befana is an elderly women who rides around on a broom on the evening of January 5 and the morning of January 6, bringing presents and gifts to children - she is, essentially, the equivalent of the American legend of Santa Claus. One of the Franciscans in Assisi informed me of the legend which holds that this woman had an opportunity to join the three magi in going to visit the Christ child, but declined their offer as she had to use her broom to clean her abode. Having thus missed her chance to bring gifts to the Christ child, she searched in vain for Jesus and the magi, and is still searching today, so she rides around on the broom each year bringing gifts to other young children.

One of the many interesting traditions surrounding the Feast of the Epiphany is held in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and is known as the Blessing of Waters. During the blessing, the priest leads the people to the nearest body of water, and in the Greek Orthodox church, blesses this body of water by throwing a cross into the water. If there are swimmers available - typically young men between the ages of 16-18 - they dive into the water to retrieve the cross. The one who finds the cross is given a special blessing, and the water that is blessed is known as Theophany Water.[2] This differs from Holy Water in that it is taken home by the people and used to bless themselves, their homes and used for drinking, as traditions holds the water to be "in-corrupt," a tradition dating back to St. John Chrysostom.[3]

Another interesting blessing related to the Feast is blessed chalk and house blessings. Although varying in practice, many Christians will receive a blessing over their house on the day of the Feast or close to the Feast. A piece of blessed chalk is brought to the house, and usually the priest or the brother will go to the house of the parishioners or those who wish to receive a blessing, and will say a prayer of blessing over the house. Following this, those present will use the blessed chalk to write the initials of the traditional names later attributed in the 6th century to the wise men - Caspar (also known as Gaspar or Jaspar), Melchior and Balthasar. This is preceded and followed by the numbers of the current year on both sides of the initials. For example, a Franciscan friar visited my community and blessed our house. We participated in the blessing, in which we wrote on the door 20 C+M+B 16, and the friar noted that the C+M+B not only stood for the traditional names of the magi, but is also widely believed to mean Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning, "Christ bless this house."

It should also be noted that the popular idea of "Three Kings" named Caspar/Gaspar/Jaspar, Melchior and Balthasar is not found in Matthew's gospel. This is owed in part to the Episcopalian deacon John Henry Hopkins' famous 1857 Christmas carol, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," which he wrote for his seminary's holiday pageant in New York City.[4] Early Christian depictions of the Epiphany also illustrate three individuals, but the gospel of Matthew - from which we receive our information concerning the magi - does not give a number of the magi, nor does it provide their names - nor does it call them kings. Again, the idea that there were three kings is due in large part to Hopkins' song, along with Psalm 72, a passage taken by some as a prophecy of sorts of "kings" coming to visit the Christ child - and the fact that only three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are mentioned. This is why there is often a misconception of only three individuals, and these three being kings. From Matthew's gospel, we can glean that they were magi - magicians or wise men from the East, perhaps Zoroastrian priests or astrologers who paid keen attention to the signs and symbols in the heavens.

The Feast of the Epiphany can also serve as a reminder to us to give to others with an open and willing heart. This can be considered a work of mercy or an act of social justice, in which we give to those who are oppressed, marginalized, homeless, poor and needy. Peter Maurin, who helped to found the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, once said that "The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor. If your brother comes to you hungry you say, "Go, be thou filled," what kind of hospitality is that? It is no use turning people away to an agency, to the city or the state or Catholic Charities. It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy. Perhaps you can only give she price of a meal, or a bed…and often you can only hope that it will be spent for that. Often you can literally take off a garment, if it only be a scarf, and warm your shivering brother."[5] 

Recall to mind the words later attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "It is in giving that we receive." Just as the magi gave to the Christ child, so we too ought to continue on the spirit of giving. This giving can be giving of ourselves - donating our time to be present to a friend, a loved one or someone on the street, in a nursing home or hospital - or perhaps donating to help a good cause, volunteering our time at a soup kitchen, donating clothes or toys to organizations like the Salvation Army, donating food to a local food pantry or blankets to a homeless shelter, giving blood to the Red Cross, and so forth. There are also many organizations which provide cards for people in prison, boxes of food, toys and clothes for those in the United States and in other countries (such as, or any number of different ways of giving. We call to mind the words of St. James, who wrote to the early Christians, "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16). This Feast of the Epiphany can serve as a reminder to us not only of many interesting and thoughtful traditions, but also as a reminder of the "shining forth" of the Christ child in the world - calling us to action, and calling us to also "shine forth" in the world to others and give as the magi once did.

[1] “Epiphany.” 10 Nov. 2015. Web. Accessed 4 Jan. 2016.
[2] St. John Maximovitch, On Holy Water.
[3] St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Christian Baptism in P.G., XLIX, 363.
[4] Storer, Doug. "America's first Christmas carol written in Huron". The Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Florida, 1972. 12B. Print.
[5] Day, Dorothy. Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World. 60. Print.

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