Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
The Epiphany, sometimes called the Theophany, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child. Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6.
Officially called “The Epiphany of the Lord,” this feast celebrates the epiphany (manifestation) of Christ to the Gentiles, symbolized by Christ’s manifestation to the Magi (Wise Men). The feast originally was more closely connected to Jesus’ baptism, the primary theme of the feast in Eastern Churches to this day. In addition, other manifestations of Christ were often commemorated, including the miracle at Cana. This solemnity is celebrated on January 6, which falls within Christmastide. In some Catholic regions, the feast is translated to a Sunday.
The story of the Magi traveling from the East to see the Christ child appears only in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The word Magi, in Greek magoi, comes from the Latin word meaning “sage.” These particular sages were possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia. Upon seeing a star rising in the East (the Star of Bethlehem), they realized it was a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107), the star shone with an inexpressible brilliance, and the sun, moon, and other stars all formed a chorus around the special star (Letter to the Ephesians, 19). The wise men followed the star to Bethlehem of Judea, and to Jesus’ dwelling there. Having arrived, they worshipped the infant Jesus, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
There have been numerous traditions that have grown up about the Wise Men. Typically we think of there being three wise men because of the number of gifts, but Matthew doesn’t tell us the exact number. Since the 3rd century, Christian writers have referred to them as kings, even though Matthew doesn’t specifically tell us that they were royalty. Their names in the West, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar date to the 6th century. The names mean: Master-of-Treasure, King, and Protect-the-King, respectively. The Syrian Church has given them the following Persian names: Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph.
St. Bede the Venerable fills in a few gaps, providing colorful details about the Magi:
The first was called Melchior. He was an old man, with white hair and a long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his King. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was middle-aged and called Balthasar. The myrrh he held in his hand prefigured the death of the son of Man (see The Catholic Source Book).
Legend also has St. Thomas the Apostle visiting the Magi, and after catechizing them, initiating them into the Christian faith. Eventually the Wise Men were ordained priests and then bishops. Near the end of their lives, the Christmas Star revisited them, this time bringing them together for a reunion.
Epiphany is an ancient feast, dating to the 3rd century in the East. In the East, the Epiphany feast pre-dates the Christmas feast, although the West knew of the Nativity Feast before the Epiphany feast. Originally the Epiphany celebrated the Baptism of Christ. The birth of Christ was often tied to the Epiphany. The Church in Jerusalem celebrated Christ’s Nativity on January 6 until AD 549. St. Epiphanius (d. AD 403) also lists the Epiphany as the date of the celebration of Christ’s birth. In the Armenian Church today, January 6 is the only day celebrating Christ’s Incarnation. The Epiphany feast was introduced in the Western Church by the 4th century, but the connection between the feast and Christ’s baptism was gradually lost. The Western observance of the feast soon became associated with the visit of the Wise Men. In the West, the Feast of Jesus’ baptism is a separate holy day, and currently falls on the Sunday following Epiphany. In the East, the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany gradually became two distinct feasts.
Various customs have developed around Epiphany. In the East, there is a solemn blessing of water. In the West, in the Middle Ages, houses were blessed on Epiphany. Holy water was sprinkled in each room. The whole family was involved. The father led the procession with a shovel of charcoal on which he burned incense and the oldest son had the bowl of holy water. The rest of the family followed along saying the rosary and/or singing hymns. While the father and oldest son were incensing and blessing the house, the youngest child carried a plate of chalk. The chalk had been blessed with a special blessing after morning Mass. The father took the blessed chalk and wrote over every room that led outside: AD 20+C+M+B+05 which stands for “Anno Domini 2008—Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar” and means “The three Holy Kings, Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, in the year of Our Lord, 2008” or whatever the year may be. This tradition of blessing the doorways symbolizes the family’s commitment to welcome Christ into their homes on a daily basis through the year.