When I tell people I’m really into Epiphany, they often look at me like I have two heads. Perhaps that because, when most people hear the word “epiphany,” they think it’s in reference to the word’s other meaning—a moment of sudden revelation or insight. While I’m also down with sudden revelatory insights, the Epiphany I’m referring to is the liturgical day of the Christian calendar, when we remember the arrival of three astrologers to the town of Bethlehem.
Often referred to as the Magi, they came from the east on a journey that took them hundreds of miles presumably over parts of Asia and the Middle East. While the details are fuzzy about their countries of origin, the length of their journey (most scholars guess between one and two years), and even the names of three kings (as they are also called), what is clear is that they traveled from far-off places to pay homage to the child who was born in Bethlehem, and whose very birth caused a definitive change in the constellations. It wasn’t just a shooting star or a comet that was visible for a short time, but a significant enough aberration that the astrologers used the star to find the town by traveling at night for over a year.
We also have records of what gifts they brought—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—costly and precious gifts that were befitting a king. These gifts are firmly established in the Christmas narrative by the presence of the Magi in most crèche displays. Despite the fact that they really weren’t there on the night of Christ’s birth (those would have to be some very fast camels), we honor their role in the broader birth story by including them just outside the stable, as if they arrived late for the party.
Unfortunately, most of those sets are put away by January 6, the day most traditions celebrate Epiphany. And, unfortunately, when we forget the Magi on the special day of the liturgical year that we’ve set aside to remember them, we lose something of value to our faith formation. Because, when we stop and consider what Epiphany is really celebrating, we’re able to see why it’s so important to make sure we and our faith communities celebrate it as a holy day. Epiphany is not just about the arrival of three astrologers from the East to celebrate Jesus’ birthday; it’s about the Gentile acknowledgement that a divine King beyond human comprehension had come into the world. Epiphany is about that recognition and there are wonderful ways to celebrate this fact.
While I don’t have the space to unpack the many ways we as a church can lead in Epiphany celebrations, here are three quick ideas to explore: 1.) leave up the Christmas decorations in your churches and homes until January 5th (after all, Epiphany Eve is the 12th day of Christmas), 2.) make a King Cake and include a traditional fève (a little porcelain baby Jesus), and 3.) read the story from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2) or an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of the Magi. Even in these little ways, you join in the crowd of witnesses that acknowledge Christ Jesus as the King over all of creation.