During the Fourth Century the Feast of the Epiphany developed in the Latin Rite (more commonly called by us the "Catholic Church") from a Celebration in the Holy Land that began much, much earlier in time. It took place on January 5 in the darkness of evening and went through the sunlight of the day of January 6th. The Western Church, the Roman Church, celebrated Christmas on December 25th, but adopted over time this custom of celebrating Christmas on January 6th. Both feasts had the theme of "Light coming into the world." Soon the West called their second celebration "Little Christmas" and titled it "the Feast of Epiphany," meaning appearance or manifestation. Christmas in a sense celebrates the winter solstice and "Little Christmas" celebrates following the light of the brightest star in the sky. Both mean and celebrate the great coming of divine light into our world. There is in many ways a twelve day "Festival of Lights" celebrated in our Tradition.
In the story of the Epiphany is the appearance of what we now say are three Kings, or Magi. Various stories throughout the early church had as many as 12 Kings or Magi. Adding camels and dromedaries and royalty from far off mysterious lands who bring exotic gifts creates a wondrous and dreamy story of Christmas for everyone. It is interesting that Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us this story. We believe he does so because this story has elements that allow the early Jewish converts to Christianity to connect the Hebrew Scriptures with the story of Jesus Christ.
Matthew recalls the prophet Micah's prophecy, "But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel." In using it with the words: "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah" (2:6), Matthew tells us that the small will be great; the center of power will shift and a child will be king. We can understand why the Magi are portrayed as seekers and seers. They are to follow the special celestial light they are given. They find a child and see a king. And then they are to go back home for they have been touched by the Divine Light.
Although this story of the Magi is full of razzle dazzle and exotica, it is only in this one gospel. As in the story the Magi come from the distant unknown and return there, so appropriately in the gospel they appear briefly and then disappear. Even so, this story of the Magi and the finding of Jesus in the crib at Bethlehem is a very important story. Christ is presented for the first time to the whole world for Christ is meant for everyone, not a select religious few.
We need to remember that there are many lessons in this feast day, but perhaps the most important one is that God has come from afar to dwell among us and we need to respond. How we respond in our daily life is up to us. Christ has become our Light, we need to see and then live in that light.BACK TO LIST