Gee whiz. Everyone took down their Christmas trees already because everyone knows Christmas is over. 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, or has otherwise learned, to speak Spanish.
Well, guess what, we're not sure they were kings, we don't know for sure that there were three of them -- that's inferred from there having been three gifts in the Biblical story -- all we know is the Christian Church has for over 1,500 years celebrated a major feast on 6 January, and it isn't always the same things being celebrated. Man, sounds like one of those things we can just leave to the dustbin of history and stick to the Gospel, just preach Jesus, huh?
Maybe not. Consider. The word epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning appearance or manifestation. The word theophany is more specific, coming from the Greek for an appearance or manifestation of God. The former is more common in the Western Church, and the latter 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, in 361, 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, if you're a regular reader of the blog, though I'm not sure anyone is, we saw 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 a celebration on this day 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.
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, and even more unfortunately, if one follows the Roman Church, ever ready to act like the state religion of the Roman Empire that it is, and even more unfortunately followed into the abyss by other Christian bodies willingly even with no state force to make it so, 6 January isn't even the feast day any more, after over a millennium and one half of observance!!! The mitred monkeys made the feast to fall on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January, bumping what was the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on that day, poor guy -- which in years where there was no Sunday between the Circumcision on the 1st and Epiphany on the 6th was celebrated on 2 January, btw -- in 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 do pretty well what you want, but why those of us out here in the ecclesial unions -- Rome's term for churches that 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 brothelial unions following the Whore in its further retreat from the Gospel of Christ.
Now, back to Epiphany, in the Western Church (not to be confused with the Roman 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 they derived from the Persian word for the priests of Zoroaster. These guys are sometimes called astrologers, but that can be misleading because 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 he does not record the birth of Jesus itself where Luke does but does not record the Magi, and Mark doesn't bother with any of it, starting with Jesus' Baptism. In my scripture classes at a 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 taken literally or written as some kind of accurate record as we now understand accurate. Yeah, well, back to the Christian faith and church, Matthew only says they were from the East, which means they weren't Jews, like the 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 revealed to the the Jews, but 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 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, not first instructing them in the Law and the Prophets, but taking their own religious ideas and pointing out how it both leads to Christ, but is not able to be complete without Christ, and is fulfilled and made complete in Christ. Being a Gentile, that Jesus' birth from the outset showed this is from God for Jews and Gentiles alike is a pretty big deal to me, certainly on that alone worth celebrating in a major way.
In the West, the names of the Magi are traditionally given as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Not Biblical but 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 -- enough time to follow the Silk Road (man, I gotta post about the Silk Road some time) and make it to Palestine? On the other hand, Marco Polo said he was shown the tombs of the three Magi about 1270 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.
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 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, but we represent them usually at the manger, not his home, and this custom probably reflects the tradition that they arrived some time later after the Holy Family had either returned home or were staying elsewhere around Jerusalem after the birth itself. So there is some variation in just where they arrived, as well as when they arrived and who they were. 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, is then an acronym for Christus mansionem benedicat, may Christ bless this house. This is done by Sternsinger, German for star singers, a reference to the star which guided the Magi, 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 -- at least Pastor Weedon blogged about doing some, though I don't remember he mentioned any sternsinger.
Also, in many places, especially those of Spanish derived culture, Epiphany is the gift giving day, after the example of the gifts of the Magi. This is Los Tres Reyes, the three kings. 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. I read in Spain there were demonstrations this year 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 St Nicholas.
But apart from these customs in other places, Epiphany isn't going to be much of a deal here in the US. However, there are signs of hope! Epiphany may be saved from cultural invisibility by the same commercialisation that has saved Christmas. Yes, you read it right, saved Christmas -- think how Christmas would disappear entirely in the secular "politically correct" world were if not for the revenue it generates for the economy and business. And, as the Latin presence in the US continues to expand, many retailers are finding that by making more of Epiphany with its gift giving traditions they can extend the harvest of the season. Yes that will come at the expense, so to speak, of the "real meaning of Epiphany" just as with 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.
Myself, though of English descent, and later culturally adopted by the Puerto Rican contingent at university, I was adopted by a couple of Irish descent, and Dad always called Epiphany "Little Christmas" following Irish custom, and there was one more present on Epiphany. I continue that with my own boys, though we don't do the whole box of hay thing -- they don't even speak any Spanish! Yet. But the idea is 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. On 6 January.
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 nothin 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 like this year when it falls on a Sunday anyway, or if 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, though even where it does so far as I can tell does not cave on 6 January, or belong to groups in other churches attempting to maintain the faith amid the onslaught of revisionism and Vatican II wannabeism. Hey, wonder what Rick Warren or Joel Osteen are preaching on this Sunday 6 January 2008! No excuse this year!
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!!
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