Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, marks the end of the Christmas season for people in the United Kingdom. It is also an occasion for Christians to celebrate the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men, or Kings) to Jesus shortly after his birth. Some Christians attend special church services on the 6th January or the Sunday nearest to that date. Figures representing the Magi are often placed in some crib scenes on Epiphany. The Festival marking the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is called Epiphany because it signifies the manifestation of God in the Person of Jesus to Gentiles as represented by the Magi. The ancient Greek word epiphaneia means ‘manifestation’ or ‘striking appearance’ and is indicative of an experience of sudden and striking realization. So right from the beginning of the Gospel Story we see that the birth of the Promised Messiah or Saviour is good news for everyone and not just for the Jews!
We know very little about the Magi. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel Writers to describe their visit. (Matthew 2:1-12). He tells us that they came ‘from the east’ to worship the Christ, ‘born King of the Jews’. The Magi are popularly referred to as ‘Wise Men’ and ‘Kings’. The word ‘Magi’ (the actual word Matthew uses in his account) is a term dating from the 6th century BC, to denote followers of Zoroaster, who placed great stress on the ability to read the stars, and manipulate the fate that the stars foretold. It is the root of the word ‘magician’ – a practitioner of magic, including astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge. It is suggested that the Magi who visited the infant Jesus were members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science.
Tradition identifies a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian Church they have been commonly known as: Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar; and Balthazar, an Arabian scholar. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Balthasar was the king of Arabia, Melchior the king of Persia, and Caspar the king of India. In reality, we cannot be sure who they were, or what their background was. What we can be sure of is that, like those Greeks who approached Philip (John 12:20), these ‘wise men’ came seeking Jesus. The Magi or Wise Men or Kings from the East were, according to Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found Jesus by ‘following a star’ which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem. On finding him, they gave baby Jesus three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
Gold was a gift offered to a king, and Jesus is King of kings! Not just ‘king of the Jews’ (John 19:9) but ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:6). His kingdom, however, was not of this world. He was to reign not by force but by love. To rule over our hearts from a cross not a throne. And his resurrection from the dead confirmed him as King with all authority given to him (Matthew 28:18)!
Frankincense was a gift offered to a priest – it was a sweet perfume used in Temple Services – and Jesus is our Great High Priest. The Writer to the Hebrews tells us that ‘we have a great high priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God’ (Hebrews 4:14). The function of a priest is to represent God to humanity and humanity to God. The Latin word for priest is pontifex which means ‘bridge-builder. This is exactly what Jesus has done for us. Through his death he removed the barrier of sin between us and God, and through his resurrection he opened a new and living way back to God for us.
Myrrh was a gift used in those days to embalm the bodies of the dead – and the very reason Jesus came was to die on Calvary’s cross to redeem us from the power and penalty of our sin. Before he was born he was already ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). And at his birth he was given the name Jesus ‘for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
Epiphaneia can also mean ‘a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization’ or ‘a spiritual flash that changes the way we see ourselves’ (as one writer has put it). Both these definitions would appear to have applied to these visiting Magi. After their visit the Magi leave the narrative by returning another way so as to avoid King Herod (who is determined to involve them in his plot to kill the infant Messiah) and do not reappear. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptised by Thomas on his way to India. It has been suggested that what we have here is the story of the first converts from Zoroastrianism. And of course throughout Scripture and history we have thousands of stories of people, from all walks of life, religious and non-religious, who also have had a similar epiphaneia for themselves, right up to the present day.
Rex Knowles tells how his wife went Christmas shopping one afternoon and left him to look after the children. Suddenly they disturbed his peace by announcing, ‘Daddy, we have a play to put on. Do you want to see it?’ Daddy didn’t but he knew he would have to so he went into the living room and sat down – a one man audience. He saw that it was a Nativity Play. At the foot of the piano stool was a lighted torch wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a shoe box. Rex (aged 6) came in wearing Daddy’s bathrobe and carrying a mop handle, followed by Nancy (aged 10) who announced ‘I’m Mary and this is Joseph!’ Then Trudy (aged 4) entered with pillow cases over her arms which she waved about saying, ‘I’m an angel!’ Finally in came Anne (aged 8) riding a camel – at least she moved as though she was riding a camel because she had on a pair of her mother’s high heeled shoes. She was bedecked in all the jewellery available and carried a pillow laden with certain items. She bowed before the Holy Family and announced, ‘I am all three wise men! I bring precious gifts: gold, circumstance, and mud!’ That was all. The play was over. But Daddy didn’t laugh. He prayed as he thought how near his little daughter had come to the truth. He thought of the way materialism had gripped him. Of how circumstances were overwhelming him. And how everything seemed to be crumbling around him. That prayer marked a new beginning for Rex Knowles as he allowed Jesus Christ to break into his life anew!