Have you ever heard the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? In it, the gifts get more extravagant as the days of Christmas wear on, culminating in a menagerie of musicians, dancing ladies, and a whole lot of birds swimming or hanging out in pear trees. It is slightly ridiculous; however, it illustrates the fact that Christmas was not always a one day affair, celebrated by singing, shopping, and feting for more than a month before the day and then tossed out on the curb with our torn-up wrapping paper and dead trees to make room for New Year’s sparkling festivities. In fact, the celebration of Christmas lasted for twelve days. It began on Christmas and ended on the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord on January 6 – an ancient feast (3rd century in the East) which predates the feast of Christmas by a few centuries and was tied to the Nativity and the Baptism of our Lord.
The season before Christmas is called Advent. We spend this season in prayer, waiting in darkness, preparing our hearts and souls for the coming of the Light of the World. At Christmas, this Light shines forth and we celebrate the much longed-for Messiah’s birth; however, in gazing at the crèche we realize that this light was only witnessed by His Mother Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds. It is at the Epiphany that the Light shines beyond this small family circle, beyond the chosen few, to the ends of the earth. The Three Wise Men represent the Gentiles, those grafted onto the vine. Epiphany comes from epiphania – to show or make known. It is the manifestation of the God-Man to the world, for Christ came for the world in its entirety. Christmas is when we celebrate Christ’s humanity, but Epiphany is when we celebrate his divinity.
Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising.
My family has always celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. I was born in Puerto Rico, where “Los Reyes Magos” visit us on the evening of January 5 and leave us presents under our beds. We moved to Florida when I was little, and when these kingly visitors brought us gifts once a year, their camels always left a mess when they ate the “straw” (grass) we had torn or cut from our yard the night before and placed in a shoebox in anticipation of their visit. They always fascinated me more than did Santa Claus, who, with his furry suit and hat, seemed to belong to those from the Frozen North, which to me meant anywhere north of St. Augustine, Florida. The Magi came from a warm climate; they knew how to dress for the heat. They were too dignified to pop down a chimney, whatever that was; instead, they came through the keyhole. These royal visitors brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the King of Kings – exotic and expensive gifts, so you knew they had good taste. I looked forward to their day every year, not only because it meant more presents and what kid wouldn’t like that? I looked forward to their visit for another reason: They were at Bethlehem. They had seen the Christ-Child in the arms of His mother and had knelt in worship.
I am no longer a child, but I still look forward to this day with child-like wonder. I help my children to set the three figures of the Magi throughout the house, traveling slowly toward the crèche as their day approaches. I tell them how the word Magi, in Greek magoi, comes from the Latin word meaning “sage.” These wise men were astrologers who read the stars and, upon seeing a star rising in the East they recognized it was a sign that a great King had been born.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Gospel of Matthew)
What made them wise was not that they saw the star, but that they followed its light on a difficult journey. To Bethlehem. To Christ.
We will feast on this day, and I will again tell my children that Melchior (meaning King City) brought Jesus gold, a present fit for a king; Caspar (meaning Master-of-Treasure) brought Him frankincense, a resin used to make the incense used in religious rituals, in homage to His divine nature; and Balthazar (Protect-the-King) brought to Him myrrh, a resin used in embalming bodies, prefiguring the death of the Son of Man. I will tell them that these gifts also symbolize something greater: gold for the adoration (love) due our Lord, frankincense for prayer and the worship we owe Him, and myrrh for the redemptive value of pain and suffering. Then, we will end our festivities by blessing our house, drawing the cross of salvation above the door, together with the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), which can also be interpreted to mean Christus Mansionem Benedicat(May Christ bless this house), written in blessed chalk:
20 C+M+B 12
The Feast of the Epiphany is a sign of the Universal Church. It is a reminder that we, as Christians, are called not only to follow the Light wherever He may lead, but also to be a light to others along the way. The Magi followed the star to the King, bringing the most precious gifts they had to offer. I challenge you to bring your precious gifts to Jesus and to share them with the world to the Glory of God.
Amelia is a chatty cradle Catholic who has been married to her strong, silent cradle Catholic husband for ten years. They have four gorgeous children, with number five on the way and live a semi-nomadic military life. She is a professional kid-wrangler and wannabe wordsmith who spends her days homeschooling, changing diapers, and learning from her children how to be a better child of God