The feast of the Epiphany (from Greek appearance or manifestation) is traditionally celebrated on the twelfth night after Christmas (January 6th). As a result, it is sometimes called Twelfth Night, but is also known as Three Kings Day or sometimes Little Christmas, depending on which country or Christian tradition you belong to. In many cultures, this day, not Christmas, is when gifts are exchanged in memory of the gifts of the magi to the Christ Child. It is a solemn feast day and an important part of the Christmas season, so we Catholics should celebrate it. Unfortunately, due to secular and Protestant influences, many American Catholics essentially ignore it – even with the U.S. Bishops bumping it ahead to Sunday.
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents went all out to celebrate it (chalking the door with the new year, making an Epiphany cake and so on). I encourage our parish families to do the same. Check out the parish blog, sccrparish.blogspot.com, for some ideas on how to do that.
There is a rich treasury of Christian art for the Epiphany, typically depicting magi or kings of three different races representing all of the then-known continents of the world. (In this current age when people seem obsessed with racial identity and racial differences in an unhealthy way, it is important to remember that it is Jesus Christ who draws people of every race and nation together).
Despite that rich artistic treasury, though, the Scriptural references are quite meager. Only St. Matthew records it in his Gospel, although there are certainly prophetic hints of this great encounter of the wise men from the East. The mysterious biblical account says almost nothing about the motivation of these wise men or the details of the journey. Perhaps that is because St. Matthew wants us to fill the details in with our imagination – to place ourselves at the foot of the cradle of the Christ Child, with all its wonder upon our personal encounter with God-made-man, Who would become a tiny and helpless child, He Who is the King of the Universe.
There is a wonderful new community of religious sisters based in New York called the Sisters of Life (sistersoflife.org), founded by John Cardinal O’Connor about 30 years ago. Their charism (particular focus and gift) is the promotion of the sacredness of life through prayer and action, especially the life of the unborn. As such, they pray profoundly about the mystery of Christ conceived as a human embryo in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the beauty and mystery of His infancy and childhood. Who better than they to prayerfully imagine what was in the minds of the Magi as they first encountered the Holy Face of God in the Christ Child at the conclusion of their arduous and mysterious journey.
Here is that creative prayer of theirs, imagining what it would be like to be King Melchior (one of the wise men) compelled by faith and love to adore the newborn King as soon as he saw Him, as the tiny infant hands of the Christ Child reached out to his heart and soul, the very core of his being. It is taken from the devotional magazine Magnificat (which I highly recommend) quoting the Sisters’ book entitled Epiphanies: Meditations with Scripture Through the Eyes of King Melchior
I was a man with a keen mind—even a brilliant one, many would often say. I was well-educated, acquiring tremendous knowledge of the various disciplines, which brought me much praise and applause. And yet my passion was always to explore and discover the true essence of things. I felt confident in these abilities, and (I must admit) I enjoyed the admiration for my efforts….
Now, here we were on a journey different from all the others. We had studied the stars and the prophetic writings, and with the passing of time, we had become thoroughly convinced the message was true. The anticipation grew in our minds—this search for the King…. Now, we made our way through the darkness, the heavy-laden camels dragged slowly behind. We had crossed empires and deserts, but the last few miles from Jerusalem seemed endless.
We made our way through the narrow streets and found the light falling upon the simplest of dwellings. Unable to wait until the sun rose above the hills, my companion knocked. The door opened, and without hesitation (as if he had been waiting for our arrival), a kindly man with gentle features ushered us in from the cold. We were led to a dimly lit corner where sat a young woman. As we reverently approached, she glanced up and smiled, and I spontaneously bowed—for she had the nobility of a queen….
Now, no man could ever know or comprehend what I must tell you next. The young woman bent low, as if to direct our gaze to him. In an instant, I was on my knees, transfixed before the most beautiful of all faces. It was the face of a child. What I encountered in that brief but momentous minute was so astonishing I can barely say. Here, in this poor, humble, little King I found all the wisdom that ever was. Here, I somehow knew, was the source of all truth. Overwhelmed, I could not utter a single word, but simply knelt in adoration.