By Fr. Leo M. Joseph, O.S.F.
St. John’s Parish Priest
In 2006 I was visiting Milan and a local friend arranged for a very scholarly friend of his to guide me on an historical tour of this ancient yet bustling northern Italian city. Now I had been to Milan twice before but never had such a knowledgeable guide with a little Fiat to drive me to all of the out of the way historic sites.
While we visited the ancient 4th century church of St. Eustorgio at the edge of Milan he pointed to an ancient stone sarcaphacus-like container that was inscribed to indicate that it contained the bones of the Three Wise Men. Explaining that their remains were brought to Milan from Constantinople in 343 A.D. by St. Eustorgio, and that it was now empty, he became increasingly animated, arms waving, face reddening, as he described how they were stolen by the Germans and now are kept in Cologne.
If I had not already known the story, I’d have thought that this just happened last week. I thought it best not to mention that I had several times visited the Three Kings in Cologne, whose names, tradition tells us, are Casper, Melchior, and Baltarsar. I also did not think it would have been helpful for me to tell him that my maternal grandfather was from Cologne!
As it was, back in the late 90’s, I had stopped in Cologne, and visited their magnificent Gothic Cathedral. The focal point of the Cathedral is a gilded, bejeweled and enameled shrine that is believed to contain the relics of the Magi, who Scripture tells us followed a brilliant star from the East to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. Since then, I have had several other opportunities to make this pilgrimage to honor these holy relics that have been venerated there since the Emperor Frederick Barbarosa had them to be transferred from Milan to Cologne in 1164.
On January 6, we along with Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. Even though it is one of the most ancient and important feasts of the Christian calendar, it has all but been forgotten in 21st Century American culture.
In many Christian countries it is not only a church holy day, but a civil holiday. Many customs and traditions have grown up around its celebration over the centuries and it is known by a variety of names. In most countries of Europe the most popular is The Feast of the Three Holy Kings, and in England and Ireland as Little Christmas or Twelfth Night. (That’s how we got the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.)
Quite early in the Christian era these Magi or Wise Men were popularly called “Kings,” referring to passages from Psalm 71:10 and Isaiah 60:3-6. The Gospel does not tell us how many they were. Christians in the Orient had an old tradition that there were twelve Magi. The number three seems only to be based on the threefold gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and that they represented the three known races.
(Another story I’ve been told is that the number of three Magi was insisted on by a very ancient Altar Guild who obstinately refused to pack up a dozen figures of Kings and their camels every year!)
The name of this feast, Epiphany, had become almost unintelligible until recent years when the word “epiphany” crept back into our current speech to describe a sudden revelation or realization, as in “I had an epiphany today about...”
And this is quite correct, as Epiphany comes from an ancient Greek word Epiphaneia meaning manifestation, and was used to designate an official state visit of a king or emperor in the Greco-Roman world. The New Testament applied this term to Christ manifesting Himself as our Divine Savior (John 2:11).
The feast of Christ’s “manifestation” on January 6th, including His birth, originated in Egypt a century before the Roman celebration of Christ’s nativity on December 25th, and was the earliest known celebration of Christmas. In the following century the two observances were kept side by side with the focus of December 25th on Christ’s birth and January 6th His manifestation to the Magi, as well as His Baptism and His first miracle at the wedding in Cana.
The visit of the Magi to worship the Christ Child in Bethlehem has remained the main object the Epiphany celebration in Western Christianity, with the commemoration of Christ’s Baptism by St. John in the River Jordan now observed on the following Sunday.
We mark this by blessing water after the Sermon on that Sunday and then in place of reciting the Nicene Creed, we stand and renew our Baptismal Vows. Then we are sprinkled with the blessed water as a remembrance of our own Baptism.
Thus we embark on the season of Epiphany which concludes on the Sunday before Lent when we celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration, His ultimate manifestation before His Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Throughout Epiphany we usually sing one of my favorite hymns:
Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise,
manifested by the star to the sages from afar;
branch of royal David's stem in thy birth at Bethlehem;
anthems be to thee addressed, God in man made manifest.
Manifest at Jordan's stream, Prophet, Priest and King supreme;
and at Cana, wedding guest, in thy Godhead manifest;
manifest in power divine, changing water into wine;
anthems be to thee addressed, God in man made manifest.
Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,
where disciples filled with awe thy transfigured glory saw.
When from there thou ledest them steadfast to Jerusalem
cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.
I wish each of you a Blessed and Joyous Epiphany!