A reflection on the Feast of the Epiphany — (Click here for audio)
Epiphany is a word meaning ‘manifestation’. It is an event as important as Christmas itself. Jesus incarnate at Christmas and Jesus made manifest to the world at Epiphany are two sides of the same coin.
We get much of the information we have about the Magi directly from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew tells us that Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem and finally in Bethlehem, where they did homage to the Christ-child and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But there are additional narratives that do not appear in the Gospel that are now part of the tradition. For example, Matthew does not say how many Magi there were. That there were three kings is an extra-biblical tradition. There are many interesting developments in the tradition of the Magi/three kings, and today I would draw some practical implications from the biblical and extra-biblical texts and traditions.
The commonly accepted number of three Magi, for example, has become common only because the Magi offered three gifts. There may have been more than three visitors. The other interesting detail is that Matthew does not refer to the visitors as kings, but rather, Magi. Magi literally translates as “member of the priestly class from ancient Persia.” Moreover, Matthew does not give us the name of the Magi. The names of the Magi as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, come to us from a 6th-century Greek manuscript. But other traditions have other names for the Magi. An early Christian writing preserved in Ethiopia identifies the Magi as Hor, king of the Persians, Basanater, King of Saba, and Karsudan, king of the East. Interestingly, Zoroastrian scholar Dariush Jahanian, quoting another 6th-century Syrian source names the Magi as “Hormizdah king of Persia, Yazdegerd king of Saba, and Perozadh king of Sheba.” However, it is said that those names are all Persian and not Sabaean or Arab. Perhaps, it is because of these sources that the Magi began to be identified as kings.
There is yet another significant development to which we need to pay attention. In almost all modern representations of the Magi, Balthasar is depicted as Black. There are very few images of a black Balthasar before 1400 AD. We owe the Black Balthasar to a text from Saint Bede the Venerable, although, we might conclude that a Black Balthasar was a product of the fusion of Europe’s awareness of Africa in the 1400s, renaissance art of the 15th century, and a significant influence of the Venerable Bede, who was a respected and venerated theologian, historian, and chronologist.
Tradition also has it that after discovering the “newborn king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) and paying Him homage, the Magi returned home, gave up their titles, distributed their property to the poor, and dedicated themselves to spreading the Gospel. Tradition also has it that the apostle St. Thomas baptized them forty years later in India. There is also the tradition that tells us that St. Thomas ordained them as priests in India and that they were martyred there.
However, there is an excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne which says, “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Armenia) in 54 AD to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on 1st of January, aged 116; St. Balthasar on 6th of January, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on 11th of January, aged 109.” Another tradition holds that the three Magi became martyrs and were buried in the walls of Jerusalem. This detail cannot be verified, but that does not mean that it is false.
Three hundred years later, Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, is said to have discovered their bodies and got them transferred to St. Sophia in Constantinople. During the first Crusade, their bodies were taken to the Cathedral of Milan. When Emperor Barbarossa conquered Milan in 1164, the relics of the Magi were given to Raynaldus, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany. They were later interred in Cologne Cathedral. To this day, these relics can be for here where they are beautifully enshrined in a reliquary.
In light of this history and tradition, what should we make of the Feast of the Epiphany? Here are three practical implications:
The impact that the Christ-child had on the Magi is deeply touching. This event completely transformed their lives. According to all these traditions, it was not merely a star that led them from that moment on, but rather, Jesus Christ. Jesus consumed their life and existence. The Magi are an invitation today to let Christ have the same impact on us. Are we wise like the magi? Let our life tell that story!
The depiction of the Magi as people of different colors and races helps us imagine a parish community as a global community. The Magi are the microcosm of a parish community. No one should ever feel unwelcome in a worshipping community. We know that this clearly was a problem in the early Church. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul struggles to convince the Jewish Christians that, “Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5-6). The Magi bear witness to a global nature, indeed, the catholicity of the Catholic faith.
And then there are the gifts that the Magi offered. The magi’s gifts were intimately connected with Christ and his work of redemption: gold for a king, incense for the Lord, and myrrh for his burial. Today, gifts are alienated from the event we celebrate. Did you know, for example, that Santa’s red suit was made popular by the Coca Cola company? In many countries, it is not Santa that comes bearing gifts, but the Magi. There is a tremendous need to reappropriate Christmas and Epiphany and reconnect them to the events of our redemption.
The Magi did homage to the Divine Child and then their lives became a witness to Him. Today, after we do homage to the same Christ, may our lives too be transformed and shine like the star that will lead others to Christ. Amen.
Image: Adobe Stock. The fresco of the Adoration of Three Magi in Chiesa di Santa Croce by Giovanni Maria Conti della Camera (1614 – 1670). Photo by Renáta Sedmáková.