Throughout Christian history, Christmas has been a celebration lasting 12 days. Formally defined by the Council of Tours in 567 AD, Christmas begins with a commemoration of the birth of our Lord on December 25th. The “twelve days of Christmas” were set to conclude with the Feast of the Epiphany, always falling on January 6th. In the United States today, the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday which falls between January 2nd and January 8th. In many countries around the world (such as Italy, Portugal, and Spain), Christian children receive most or all of their gifts not on Christmas Day, but on the Feast of the Epiphany. So, what is the Feast of the Epiphany, and why is it important?
The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the day which the magi (also known as the “wise men”) arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus. It is typically recounted that there were three wise men because the Bible mentions the three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) that they brought for Jesus. The magi were likely Persian philosophers and astrologers, coming from a part of the world that did not know the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet, they were in the habit of searching for truth, and in searching, they became fixated on a certain star. They set out in the direction of this star, believing that the star signified the birth of a newborn king.
In their journey towards the star, they first arrived in Jerusalem. Gazing upon the dominion of King Herod, the magi believed that they had come to the place where the newborn king must be. They asked King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Matthew 2:2). The Gospel of Matthew recounts that Herod was greatly threatened by this. Therefore, he then sent the magi to Bethlehem, which was foretold by the prophets to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Herod ordered the magi to find the “newborn king,” and to report back with news of the child’s location. The magi set out from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem, and over that small town rested the magnificent star that had first inspired their journey.
Upon finding the Holy Family, the Magi bowed down to the Lord Jesus and offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After paying homage to Jesus, the magi decided not to return to Herod, so “they departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). On the Feast of the Epiphany, we are called to reflect with the magi on the kingship of Christ. Regardless of the distorted path that we may have walked before finding our true King, we are inspired to “depart by another way” after encountering Jesus.
Written by: Curtis Gross, Seminarian in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati