Huh? Ain't The Holidays Over?
Gee whiz. Everyone took down their Christmas trees already because everyone knows Christmas is over, right? So what's an Epiphany, what's a Theophany, and who are these three kings, or los tres reyes as one says if one has the good fortune to speak Spanish. How did a major feast day become largely unknown?
Well, guess what, we're not sure they were kings. And, we don't even know for sure that there were three of them! Or where they came from! The Biblical story says there were three gifts, but it doesn't say there were three givers, that's just inferred. What we do know is, the Christian Church has for over 1,500 years celebrated a major feast on 6 January, but, not always celebrating the same things! And now, according to the "Catholic Church", it isn't even necessarily on 6 January! Man, sounds like one of those things we can just leave to the dustbin of history and stick to the Gospel, just preach Jesus, deeds not creeds, huh?
What's An Epiphany?
Maybe not. Consider. The word epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning an appearance or manifestation of something. The word theophany is more specific, coming from the Greek for an appearance or manifestation of God. "Epiphany" is more common in the Western Church, "Theophany" in the Eastern. The earliest known reference to the feast comes from a non Christian source, the soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman of Greek descent, who in his later years wrote a history of the Roman empire to continue the work of Tacitus.
His Res Gestae Libri XXXI covers the years we know as 96 to 378, but, of the thirty one books only the last eighteen, covering 353 to 378, are still around, or extant, as they say. His reference in the year 361, which was still in his lifetime, is the earliest known reference to a Christian feast celebrated on 6 January. OK, so we've nailed down that from at least the fourth century Christians were celebrating something that had to do with the manifestation of God, which, being Christians, would have to do with Jesus, on 6 January.
The original feast on 6 January was a combination of all the events of the young Jesus, from his birth, to his circumcision, the visit from whoever it was that visited from the East, his naming, his baptism, and his first public miracle changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana. From there, various local churches in various places spun off some of these events, or didn't, on to their own days, resulting in celebrations on 6 January but not of the same things. So we can nail this down too, that 6 January is among the oldest and most important of the Christian church's celebrations, which over time took on varying significance in various places.
Who Are These Three Kings Or Magi Or Whatever?
In the Western Church, not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church, 6 January has come to celebrate the arrival of the Magi. OK, so what's a Magi and where did they arrive? Well, we don't know for sure. Great -- after all the above, we actually do find more dustbin of history stuff, let's just preach Jesus?
Maybe not. Consider. What's a Magi? The word Magi -- did you notice it's pretty close to the word magic? -- comes from a Latin version of the Greek plural of a word the Greeks derived from the Persian word for the priests of Zoroaster. These guys are sometimes called astrologers, but that can be misleading because back then the term had no reference at all to storefront fortune tellers and the like, but rather to the application of astronomy and mathematics to phenomena in the best science of the time, which later lead to the term being applied to all sorts of occult religion and what came to be called magic.
Now, Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels that records the visit of the Magi. Interesting that Matthew does not record the birth of Jesus itself, where Luke records the birth but does not record the Magi, and Mark doesn't bother with any of it and starts with Jesus' Baptism, and so does John. In my Historical Jesus and Christ of Faith class at a Roman Catholic university, also attended by pre-seminarians, we learned that this of course shows the evolution of the story by writers of the Christian community as a pious expression of their faith rather than anything to be understood as some kind of accurate record as we now understand accurate.
Getting back to Matthew, the only one who says anything about this event, only says they were from the East, which means they weren't Jews, unlike the Jewish shepherds in nearby fields who also came. So here is the next thing we can nail down. The Magi represent the manifestation of Jesus the incarnation of God to the Gentiles, non Jews, for the first time. These men, whatever their origin, were not followers of the religion God had revealed to the the Jews, but followers of the best wisdom and science of their own place. So in the visit of the Magi we see two things: one is that God became Man in Jesus for all people, not only his own, and the other is that the wisdom of all people, even apart from the revelations of the Law and the Prophets, both leads to Jesus and is completed in Jesus.
St Paul would later preach accordingly to Gentiles, recorded in Acts 17 when he preached in Athens in the Areopagus. Great, more old Greek stuff, what's that? OK, "Areopagus" is borrowed directly from Latin, in which it is a contraction of the Greek name Areios Pagos, which means Ares Rock. Ares is the Greek god of war, whose Roman name is Mars, and the rock is on a hill, so in English the Areopagus is also called Mars Hill as the Romans called it. These names are used in modern times. Mars Hill was the name of a huge and hugely controversial megachurch based in Seattle that dissolved 1 January 2015. Areopagus is the name of the Supreme Civil and Criminal Court of modern Greece, a reference all the way back to the legendary founding of Athens, where the Areopagus was the site of hearing cases of murder and other serious crimes and disputes.
Anyway, these guys are not Jews, and when Paul preached to them in the Areopagus, he did not first instruct them in the Hebrew Law and the Prophets, but took their own religious ideas and pointed out how they lead to Christ, but are not able to discover Christ, yet are fulfilled and made complete in Christ. So for Gentiles, that Jesus' birth from the outset showed that this is from God for Jews and Gentiles alike is a pretty big deal, certainly on that alone worth celebrating in a major way.
Where Did They Come From?
In the West, the names of the Magi are traditionally given as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names are not in the Bible but were fairly well settled on by the eighth century. The Eastern Church has other names for them, not the same ones in all places, and with the exception of the Syrian ones none of them show any clear Persian derivation. Here's something I find fascinating: among some Chinese Christians, it is believed that one of the Magi was Chinese. Liu Shang was an astrologer (in the sense above) in the Han dynasty at the time of Jesus' birth and discovered a star that was supposed to indicate the birth of a king, whereupon he was absent from the imperial court for about two years -- about enough time to follow the Silk Road (man, I gotta post about the Silk Road some time) and make it to Palestine and back!
On the other hand, Marco Polo said that about 1270 he was shown the tombs of the three Magi south of modern Tehran. On the other hand (yeah, I know, that makes three hands) St Helena supposedly found the remains of the Magi on her trip to Palestine -- Helena being the mother of Constantine, and 80 at the time of this trip -- and took them to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which were later taken to Milan, then by order of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164, before Marco Polo, taken to the cathedral at Cologne, where they are, or something is, to-day.
Interesting indeed, but not something to get all caught up in, because the significance of the Magi isn't their names or where their remains are, but the manifestation of God to all people, of which they were the first example.
What's Up With House Blessings?
One interesting custom follows from the Western names for them. At the New Year there is the custom of writing the initials of the three, CMB, above the door to one's house to ask for blessings in the new year. Now, this follows the idea of the Magi coming to Jesus' home, as related in Matthew 2:11, or at least where he was staying, as Luke's account has them in Bethlehem until his dedication in the Temple, but in any case not the manger. We often represent them in manger scenes, not his home, but the house blessing custom reflects the Biblical account that they arrived some time later, after the Holy Family had either returned home or were staying elsewhere around Jerusalem after the birth itself.
But again, the point isn't in the details, it's in that they visited the Holy Family where they were living at the time. CMB, their initials, then became an acronym for Christus mansionem benedicat, may Christ bless this house, in Latin. This is the basis of House Blessing, done by the parish pastor on or about 6 January, as he visits the homes of parishioners. In German lands he is often accompanied by Sternsinger, German for star singers. "Star" is a reference to the star which guided the Magi, the singers are children who carry a star and dress like the Magi, who write the initials and collect donations for charitable work. The custom of house blessings continues to this day with some of our LCMS pastors (but without sternsinger).
Got Your Epiphany Shopping Done?
Epiphany has given rise to varying customs in various cultures. In some places it and not Christmas is the gift giving day, the idea being to tie it to the Magi, the manifestation of God to all people, the giving of what one has to Christ, the giving to each other as he gave to us, and most of all, his giving himself to us and for us. For example, myself, though of English descent, I was adopted by an American couple of Irish descent, and Dad always called Epiphany "Little Christmas" following Irish custom, and there was one more present on Epiphany.
This is especially so in many places of Spanish derived culture. Epiphany is the gift giving day, after the example of the gifts of the Magi, and called Los Tres Reyes, the three kings (or similar expressions: Los Reyes Magos de Oriente, Los Tres Reyes Magos, Los Reyes Magos). You put your shoes out, and if you're smart put a little hay in there for the camels, in some places (like PR) it's a box of hay under the bed, and you can leave a little note for the present you'd like, and on Epiphany you wake up and there's your presents, brought by the three kings! How about that, no clown in a red suit jumping down the fireplace, but the Magi coming by with presents for you just like they did for Christ. Camels instead of reindeer too!
I read in Spain there have been demonstrations against Santa Claus, a McWorld displacement of bringing gifts to children by the Magi. Jolly good show, I say! The whole world doesn't have to follow the secular Christmas customs of the United States, and, the Magi are considerably less removed from their Biblical character than Santa Claus is from the actual St Nicholas. In Spanish shopping malls, you can find "three kings" with kids coming up to them with notes, instead of "Santa Claus" before Christmas Day.
But apart from these customs in other places, Epiphany isn't going to be much of a deal here in the US. However as the Latin American presence in the US continues to expand, maybe retailers will find that by making more of Epiphany with its gift giving traditions they can extend the commercial harvest of the season besides the January "white sales" and such. So who knows, Epiphany may be saved from cultural invisibility by the same commercialisation that has saved Christmas. Yes, you read it right, commercialism saved Christmas -- think how Christmas would have disappeared entirely in the secular "politically correct" world were if not for the revenue it generates for the economy and business.
Of course that would come at the expense, so to speak, of the "real meaning of Epiphany" just as it has with "the real meaning of Christmas", but it keeps it visible in a world that doesn't really want to hear the meaning of any of this, and that's where the church can come in, you know, preaching the Word and stuff like that. But even that has problems.
Where Did 6 January Go?
Unfortunately, we can also nail down that, in the West anyway, even among those who have a liturgical calendar, 6 January now passes relatively unnoticed. Even more unfortunately, if one follows the Roman Catholic Church, ever ready to still act like the state religion of the Roman Empire that it was, and even yet more unfortunately, willingly followed into the abyss by other Christian bodies even with no state forcing it to do so, 6 January isn't even the feast day any more, after over a millennium and one half of observance!!!
The mitred monkeys at Vatican II changed it all up. They made a fixed feast into a moveable feast, having it fall on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January, which in turn eliminates what was the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on either that day or, in years where there was no Sunday between the Circumcision on the 1st and Epiphany on the 6th, on 2 January. Poor old Jesus and his holy name. And this change also blows up the Twelve Days of Christmas, as we saw in the previous post. This was a part of the 1970 novus ordo, a new mass with a new calendar and lectionary to fit, all in the service of the new religion re-invented from the old at Vatican II.
Well, I guess when you're the Whore of Babylon you can pretty well do what you want, you will pretty well do what you want, but why those of us out here in the ecclesial unions -- the RCC's new term for churches they say aren't really churches, not being in union with the one church, themselves of course, but preserve some truth along with their respective errors in churchy associations -- would have the slightest inclination to follow this madness, either exactly or in adaptations for own use, defies all explanation since it makes us into brothelial unions following the Whore in its further retreat from the Gospel of Christ.
What's A Theophany?
Finally, what's this Theophany stuff? In the Eastern Church, while in some places it is still along the multifaceted lines of its original observance, 6 January is not associated with the Magi at all but usually a celebration with focus on the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan by John. Theophany is a wonderful name for this feast, being as we saw more specific than Epiphany -- specifying who is being manifest here, God. And on the event of Jesus' Baptism, we have the only time when all three Persons of the Trinity were manifest to Man at the same time: God the Father speaking from the heavens, God the Son in Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending from the heavens.
The West has come to celebrate the Baptism separately from the coming of the Magi, but this beautiful celebration of the Eastern Church has much to show us about the Baptism of Jesus, whether we celebrate it this day or separately. Theophany and Epiphany both celebrate manifestations of God, though different ones, and both are on 6 January. However, the Eastern Church liturgically uses the older Julian calendar, in which 6 January falls on what is 19 January in the Gregorian calendar in secular use pretty much everywhere now.
So, between the Great Schism of 1054 and Vatican II, equally disastrous splitting events in Christianity, ain't nobody gonna be in church for nuttin on Gregorian 6 January, unlike hundreds and hundreds of years of those who came before us in faith and thought they were passing it on, except for the years like 2019 when it falls on a Sunday anyway. Unless, you're a red-hymnal-or-die type (I raise my hand here), or if you follow that part of the LSB that follows the Christian Church rather than Vatican II, or (I know, too many ors) if you belong to groups in other churches attempting to maintain the faith amid the onslaught of revisionism and Vatican II wannabeism.
Conclusion -- So Where Did The Magi Go, Where Do We Go?
Whatever their names, wherever they came from, whoever they were, whenever they got there, and wherever that was, and whether it's the coming of the Magi or the Baptism of the Lord, let us celebrate and rejoice in the appearance of God, the manifestation of God to Man in Jesus Christ, 6 January and every other day too!!
Wouldn't hurt to pay it forward, as they say, with a gift or something nice to someone else too. One fun custom that developed from this idea in many lands is King Cake, or rosca de reyes in Spanish. These are cakes or pastries, baked on Twelfth Night (night of 5 January) or before, with a baby figurine or a candy or bean in it, and eaten on Epiphany, and actually throughout the season until the end of Shrovetide on the day before Lent starts, best known by the French phrase mardi gras, Fat Tuesday. The RCC novus ordo does away with Shrovetide too, but we'll get to that in a later post, and ignore it for now, which is a good approach to the novus ordo period. Anyway, whoever gets the figurine, candy or bean representing Jesus brings it to church on 2 February, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (we'll get to that too in a later post) aka Candlemas, the last thing in the church year dated with respect to Christmas.
And one more thing: in the Biblical account the "three kings" first stopped by Herod, the Roman ruler of the area, to see about this newborn king, and Herod pretends to be interested too and wants them to report back to him afterward, but after their visit the "kings" realise Herod's interest was only in eliminating any competition, so they go back to wherever they came from by another way.
You know what? That's the way it is. When you encounter the manifestation of God in Jesus, you go home by a different way than you came, so to speak, and home takes on a different meaning too. May Christ bless your home, in all senses. Christus mansionem benedicat.
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