Of all the feast days, saints days and festivals of the Christian year, a few stand out and are immediately identifiable. I am not certain that most Episcopalians could quickly name the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29, and I had to look that up), but most everyone can tag the Feast of the Epiphany, or Day of Epiphany, or The Epiphany on January 6, twelve days after Christmas.
Here in the parish office we have a most tasteful piece of clip art that we have used on various service leaflets and in various communications over the year. It is a mere black and white stencil outline of three kings carrying gifts in procession. No one would mistake this artwork for anything other than the Magi associated with Epiphany.
The Epiphany has inspired artists for centuries. A quick Google search will reveal a number of historic paintings titled Adoration of the Magi, from Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Da Vinci, Durer, Giotto, Remembrant and Reubens.
And lest we think that the “Home Office for All Things Historic and Liturgical” handed down January 6 as the Day of Epiphany in a neat and tidy manner, another quick Google search will reveal a plethora of different worldwide Epiphany traditions and practices, in every country from Argentina to Wales.
Then we have the differences of Epiphany observances between the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches and the Western Christian Churches. Through the centuries Eastern and Western Churches have finally agreed on January 6 as the date.
Speaking of dates, we should probably name that none of these dates are historically absolute with what actually happened to Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem at the time that Jesus was born. One of my church father-heroes Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) wrote about the issue, discussing the 28th year of Augustus and the 25th day of the Egyptian year of Pachon. Using these and other writings, scholars can name some seven possible dates for Christmas Day.
Somewhere between the Winter Solstice on the Roman calendar (Dec. 25) and the English carol of the same name, we wound up with Twelve Days of Christmas, after which we land on The Epiphany (Jan. 6). Very little of all of this had much to do with the events that occurred on Bethlehem Standard Time (BST), but nevertheless here we are.
Most scholars agree that the Magi did not “make a personal call” upon the Holy Family in their stable when Jesus was twelve days old. What we do know is that, after celebrating Christmastide for twelve days, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany Day, when they worshipped and adored the Christ Child with precious gifts. They had been led to this place by an unusual, significant star that shone brighter than any of the others. Their adoration of this baby helped identify him as the one who would shine brighter in the world than all of us.
Thus, we add the Magi to that list of beings who helped identify the Christ Child: shepherds, angels, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah, his earthly father Joseph, his mother Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, and his cousin John the Baptist as an adult.
After the Day of Epiphany, we then continue with the Season of Epiphany in which we observe the various manifestations and miracles in the world that further identify and confirm that the Messiah came and dwelt among us.
Photo credit: The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy.