7th Lecturer’s story – January 2024

Jim Russell

Epiphany Sunday, January 7th marks the end of the Christmas season.  Christian tradition has the season of Christmas lasting twelve days.  This would normally be January 6th but the sixth is a Saturday this year so one more day was added to the season.  The word epiphany means ‘manifestation’ and manifestation is defined as “an event, action, or object that clearly shows or embodies something, especially a theory or an abstract idea.”    Epiphany Sunday is the event that marks the presentation of Christ, or the manifestation of Christ, to the Gentiles represented by the Magi, i.e., Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.

The story of the Magi appears in the gospel of St. Matthew which was written long after the birth of Christ.  Matthew was addressing his works to the Jewish community and his purpose was to prove that Jesus was the long promised Messiah.  To truly understand the story, it is important to consider the words used by Matthew.

Matthew tells us that a new star appeared in the heavens.  That this star was observed by wise men in the East.  That they consulted ancient prophecies and believed that the star was the one promised to mark the birth of a new king.  A king who would do great things for his people.  These wise men, identified as the Magi, decided to undertake a journey, following the star to find the new king and to honor and worship him.

Their journey eventually brings them to King Herod.  The legions of Rome had conquered the eastern Mediterranean and established several provinces to be governed by local leaders under Roman supervision. Herod was appointed to govern Judea and had assumed the title of King of Judea.  The Magi explain that they are searching for a child whose birth was foretold in the ancient prophecies.  They had observed the new star which was a sign of the birth of the child who was destined to become the King of the Jews. Herod had no knowledge of the birth of a new king and the news is disturbing. While the Magi are visiting his court, he has his advisors investigate the ancient writings. They report that prophecies exist that speak of a new star and the birth of a king to take place in Bethlehem of Judea.  Herod tells the Magi to search diligently for this child and when they find him to report back to him so that he too may go and worship him. 

The Magi continue their journey.  They find the child, Jesus, living in a house with Mary and Joseph.  They present him with the gifts they have brought and, after being warned in a dream not to report to Herod, return to their own countries by another route.

The Gospel of Matthew does not name the Magi, nor does it tell us how many made the journey.  Matthew does mention three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Three gifts lead us to believe that there were at least three Magi.  Traditionally they are identified as three kings from the East.  Casper or Gasper was first named in a mosaic at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy prior to the 6th century.  The name means treasurer.  Melchior means “King of Light.”  Balthazar is traditionally referred to as the King of Arabia. 

The three gifts may be symbolic in nature, gold representing his kingship, frankincense his priesthood and myrrh his death. The gift of gold is easily understood.  Only the rich and powerful could obtain gold. Gold was a gift fit for a king.  Frankincense is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes.  It is produced from the resin of trees.  At the time of the birth of Christ it would have originated in South Aribia.  At the time of Christ, it would primarily be used by the temple priests.  Myrrh is also an aromatic resin often used in an embalming process. 

The journey of the Magi must have taken some time.  The new star was to announce the birth of Jesus.  It would have taken time to organize and plan their journey, a journey on foot or by camel, donkey or other domesticated animal.  They would have been accompanied by many others serving as servants and other retainers.  When telling the story Matthew uses the word for ‘child’ not ‘infant’ and ‘house’ not manger or stable.  The gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verse 16 reports that Herod ordered the killing of all male children aged two and younger in the area of Bethlehem when the Magi did not report back to him.  This would suggest that the visit of the Magi took place possibly a year or two after the birth. 

Herod was the King of Judea as appointed by Augustus.  He was known for expanding the Temple in Jerusalem and for an extensive list of murders and assassinations.  The slaughter of the Innocents included his own two-year-old son.  The Magi were specifically searching for “the King of the Jews” as named in the prophecies.  The next time the phrase “King of the Jews” is used is during the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate.   Pilate asks him if he is the king of the Jews.   At the crucifixion Pilate has a label nailed above the body of Jesus.  We see the letters I N R I which represent the Latin phrase “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum” (Jesus the Nazarian, King of the Jews).  The letter “J” does not exist in the Roman alphabet, Instead, the letter “I” is used in Latin.

Many of our Hispanic brothers and the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Epiphany with the exchanging of gifts and feasting instead of or in addition to Christmas day celebrations.  In our house the Christmas tree and all related decorations as well as any outside lights and decorations remain in use until the week after the Feast of the Epiphany.

In addition to the visit of the Magi we may celebrate two other epiphanies or manifestations:  The Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan.   A dove descended over Jesus and a voice from a cloud was heard, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew Chapter 3 verses 13-17).

The third epiphany is the wedding feast at Cana.  Jesus’s mother, Mary, asked him to do something so the groom’s family is not embarrassed by running out of wine.  Jesus asks her what would she have him do? She tells the steward to do as Jesus tells him.  Turning the water into wine demonstrated to his disciples that he was the Christ as prophesied in the books of the Old Testament  (John Chapter 2 verses 1-12).