Epiphany (Greek Epiphaneia means ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’) has been defined as the manifestation of the God child to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. The feast is also sometimes called the twelfth day, as it is celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas.
A story is told of three individuals who professed different religions who were discussing which religion was the right one. They could not come to any agreement and the discussion was turning into an argument. They decided to ask an old man, who was sitting near. He replied in these words, “Well, you know there are three ways to get from here to the flour mill. You can go right over the hill. That is shorter but it is a steep climb. You can go around the hill on the right side. That is not too far, but the road is rough and full of potholes. Or you can go around the hill on the left side. That is the longest way, but it is also the easiest.” He paused and then added, “But you know when you get there, the mill man doesn’t ask you how you came. All he asks is, ‘Man, how good is your wheat?”
The story and the visit of the Magi opens our eyes to the fact that God is not restricted to any particular religion and all who seek him with a sincere heart are sure to find him. This is also the theme in Isaiah’s song of the joyful return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. All nations will worship the same God, since he will bring them to himself. As a sign of their worship and homage they will bring gifts that are acceptable to him. The text of today from the letter to the Ephesians continues the theme, when it states emphatically that the Gentiles are no longer strangers but fellow citizens all of the same city of God.
As Christians we might sometimes tend to believe that we alone possess the fullness of truth. The readings of today warn us against such exclusivism.
Through their study of the scriptures the chief priests and scribes knew that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, and yet, along with Herod, they could not find him. At that time the priests were largely Sadducees, the scribes were mostly Pharisees and by showing both groups together with Herod, Matthew probably intends to tar both leading Jewish factions and Herod with the same brush. Their search was not a proper search. They”knew” already how the Messiah would come and since his manner of coming did not fit in with what they had decided in advance, they could not recognize him.
The Magi, on the other hand, did not rely only on the star. Matthew makes clear that when they reached Jerusalem they had also to consult the scriptures. Over and above the natural light of the star, they also had to consult the divine light of the scriptures to find the Messiah. The point is that they remained open to the revelation that God would make to them. Thus, it is not so much the possession of the truth or scriptures that matters, it is how prepared we are to walk in the light of the truth that we possess. It may be better sometimes to have the dim light of the stars and follow where it leads rather than know the scriptures but decide in advance what it must say and so miss the Christ.
As Christians we are blessed in the unique revelation that God has made in Christ. The Epiphany of Christ is indeed the Epiphany of God himself. The Magi were able to recognize and encounter God in a helpless little child. Their recognition is shown in the gifts they offered him. Because these three gifts were recorded, it was traditionally assumed that there must have been three givers; however Matthew does not specify how many wise men came from the east.
Some interpret these gifts to be ordinary gifts for a king – myrrh being commonly used as anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable. Others think that they are prophetic – gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh as a symbol of death. Still others see a symbolism in the gifts: gold symbolizes virtue, frankincense prayer and myrrh suffering. No matter how one interprets these gifts, the point remains that the Magi were able to see the face of God even in the helplessness of a child.
The feast of today and the story of the Magi serve as a powerful metaphor for our journey to Christ. All peoples everywhere of different orientations, colors, genders, races and religions are moving as pilgrims and fellow travelers to find God in all things and all things in him. As we journey together, we are called, like the Magi, to continue to manifest at every step of the way the love that is gained as a result of our journeying with one another and with the God-made-man-for-us, who continues to walk with us.