This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord, which marks the end of Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. In some places in Europe, Epiphany is an even bigger celebration than Christmas, the day upon which Christians exchange presents. The word epiphany comes from a Greek verb meaning “to reveal.” What is revealed on Epiphany?
In early church history, Epiphany originally celebrated four events: the baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ first miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ birth, and the wise men visiting Jesus after his birth. Think about these four events: what is revealed to you through them? That is, what do you come to know about Jesus and God through them?
- Jesus’ baptism: When John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, God’s voice is heard from heaven, as God declares that Jesus is God’s Son.
- Jesus’ first miracle: When Jesus turns water into wine at this wedding feat, Jesus’ divinity is revealed, as it is only as God who can work miracles.
- Jesus’ birth: here Jesus’ humanity is revealed, as he was born of Mary, just as we are all born of our mothers. Further, as the shepherds who had been watching their flock in the fields by night come to bow down to Jesus, the Savior is revealed to the people of Israel.
- The visitation of the Magi: when these three kings or wise men come bearing gifts for Jesus, we see that Jesus did not just come for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel but for the Gentiles, too, and all the nations of the world. What is ultimately revealed at Epiphany is that Jesus comes for everyone.
Eventually, all four of these events were separated out. Obviously, we now celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas. The baptism of Jesus is celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany, and Jesus’ first miracle is celebrated on the Sunday after that.
One of the central features that we tend to remember from the Epiphany story (even if we do not know exactly what they are!) is the gifts that the wise men bring to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On a practical level, we might ask why these kings brought these particular gifts to Mary and her baby. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh probably were not at the top of the list of things Mary would have needed at the time, after giving birth in a stable far away from home. Wouldn’t some warm blankets or even a room a local inn have been a better way for these rich foreigners to spend their money and celebrate the birth of Jesus?
On a literary level, however, these gifts are a crucial part of what is revealed in this story. Gold was a gift considered worthy of a king. The wise men would have chosen this gift to acknowledge that Jesus was a newborn king. Yet the fact that this new king was born of a poor woman in a stable gives an indication that Jesus is going to be a different sort of king, not the kind to rule nations with the power of armies but who would gather the outcast and the lowly to him.
Frankincense and myrrh are both tree resins. Frankincense was very expensive, had a wonderful scent, and was used in worship. It indicates that Jesus is someone to be worshipped, as God is worshipped. Myrrh had a variety of purposes in Jesus’ world, as a perfume and cloth deodorizer, for instance, but in the New Testament it is associated with death. We hear in John 19:39 that myrrh was used to embalm Jesus’ body for burial after his death, thus as a gift it foreshadows Jesus’ death.
The magi’s gifts were based on their beliefs about Jesus and were a way of honoring him based on what had value in their lives and in their world. What do you believe about Jesus? What has the most value in your life and your world? If Jesus were to be born today, what three gifts might people from our culture bring to him in order to honor him and show our belief in him? As you prepare to celebrate Epiphany, think about what gifts you have to offer Jesus through your life.