While Christmas is over for many Americans, one more remembrance of Christ’s birth remains. Epiphany celebrates the presentation of Christ to the world, first in his visit from the Magi and, in Eastern Orthodox traditions, his baptism.
In Latin communities across the Americas, children jump out of bed on the morning of January 6 to see what the Wise Men left for them. Epiphany – or Three Kings Day – celebrates the arrival of the wise men who gave the Christ child their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. While millions of children leave cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer, Hispanic children leave grass and water under their beds for the Three Kings’ camels.
Bakeries in Hispanic neighborhoods work overtime baking up Roscas de Reyes (King Cakes). Inside these cakes, decorated with fruit and icing, are hidden miniatures of the Baby Jesus. The person who finds the little statue is supposed to take it to church on February 2 and throw a party.
Most of what we associate with the “Magi” comes from early church traditions. People have assumed that there were three wise men since they brought three specific gifts. (The Biblical text doesn’t number them.) The wise men are called “Magi,” from the Latinized form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian for a select sect of priests. (Our word “magic” comes from the same root.)
As the years passed, traditions became increasingly embellished. By the 3rd century, they were viewed as kings. By the 6th century they had names: Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa. Some even associated them with Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three sons of Noah, and thus with Asia, Africa, and Europe.
While the number of magi is in dispute, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were prophetic of Christ’s purposes. Gold speaks of His kingship; frankincense was a spice used in the priestly duties; and myrrh was an embalming ointment signifying His death. In the millennium, He will also receive the gifts of gold and incense, but no myrrh (Isaiah 60:6). His death was once and for all.
Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany with another focus; Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Epiphany, which means “to manifest” or “to show” in Greek, is often also called Theophany by the Eastern Church, because it is Christ’s presentation to the world as the Son of God. As John the Baptist said:
“e that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” -John 1:33-34
All these traditions and celebrations point to a very important truth – that the Son of God came to Earth. The Wise Men and the meek of the earth recognized and worshiped Him. May we continue to worship and serve Him every day of this new year, and present to the world the reality of His Life through our own.