Sunday, January 3, 2021

Celebrating Epiphany

January 3, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12[1]

After what has been a year filled with shadows, turmoil, contagion, fear, and stress, it feels to me as if there is some light ahead. Nothing much changed on Friday morning at midnight, just abstract numbers that we use to track the passage of time. What did change, what is really different is the shift in our paradigm, the way that we view the world. We have a new year, a new chance to get things right, to fix the broken things, to overcome the virus and heal. There is light ahead of us, closer than it has been in a long time.

I hope you have noticed the advent candles are still illuminated. According to the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-5). The Epiphany, God’s appearance in the human form of Jesus, brings light into a darkened world, in a sense echoing the first act of creation when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). It is fitting that we pay attention to light as we celebrate the visit of the Magi, for they paid special attention to the light.

Much of what we know about the Magi comes from traditions outside the Biblical narrative. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi. It tells us that they came “from the East” seeking the child “born king of the Jews.” Matthew does not tell us how many they were, but the three gifts seem to imply three visitors. And we know that they were most likely astrologers, or star-watchers, because they “observed his star at its rising.” Just as we watched the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn this past month, they saw something special in the heavens.

The Magi[2] are usually referred to as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from the Greek μάγος magos, which was used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew. The word magos is itself derived from an Old Persian term referring to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time a highly regarded occupation. The word is also the root of the English term magic. In the King James Version of the Bible, Erasmus translated the word as “wise men,” and that seems to have stuck.

In the Western church, tradition gives them the names Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Balthazar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India. These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria around 500 CE.

The Magi, on entering the house and seeing Mary and Jesus, “knelt down and paid him homage.” This gesture indicated great respect, typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church as part of prayer. While we don’t kneel as a regular part of our worship, kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship in many churches.

Matthew tells of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are gifts that would be given to a king. Gold is valuable as money, frankincense was used in religious ceremonies throughout the near East, and myrrh was commonly used as an anointing oil for rulers and for the dead. The three gifts have a spiritual meaning as well: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh as a symbol of death.

The visit of the Magi is the source of a number of celebrations around the world[3], and particularly the tradition of gift-giving. Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which I’m sure you’ve heard of in song. In some Latin countries, it is Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day” when gifts are exchanged, not Christmas.

In many Eastern countries, Epiphany is celebrated by Orthodox Churches as a celebration of the baptism of Christ. In Amman, a parade takes place with thousands of Christians along the River Jordan. Once the parade is complete, there is a blessing of the water. A wooden cross is placed under the water three times, representing the baptism of Christ. On the way back to town the priests carry olive branches and sprinkle holy water on the crowd.

In Greece, a festival called “The Blessing of the Waters” is held, during which young men dive into the water to retrieve a cross that was thrown in by a priest after being blessed. The first man to find it is believed to have good luck for a year.

In Bulgaria, Epiphany is known as Bogoyavlenie “Manifestation of God.” On this day, a wooden cross is thrown by a priest into the sea, a river, or a lake and young men race to retrieve it. As the waters are often close to freezing, this is considered an honorable act and it is said that the swimmer who is the first to reach the cross will be blessed with good health. This may be the origin of the Polar Bear plunge that folk around here participate in.

A story from Russia tells of an old woman, Babushka, who met the Three Kings but at first declined to join them in their search for the baby Jesus. She later regretted her decision, packed up toys and trinkets for the baby and left on a journey to find the new king. She could never find him, and it is said that to this day she still searches with her bag of gifts.

In Argentina, it is known as Noche de Reyes “The Night of Kings.” Children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present.

In England, the 6th is known as Twelfth Night and is a traditional time for masked parties and drinking wassail. The Yule log is left burning until Epiphany, and the leftover charcoal is kept until the next Christmas to kindle the next year’s Yule log. Twelfth Night is a popular time for plays, as when Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed in 1601.

In Italy, according to the Roman author Macrobius, the word Epiphania was transformed into Befana. In popular folklore, Befana visits the children of parts of Italy on the eve of January 6 to fill their socks with candy and presents if they have been good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they have been bad.

In Romania and Moldova, Epiphany celebrations include winter horse races. Before the race, the riders line up with their horses to be blessed by the priest who sprinkles them with green branches that have been dipped into holy water. Winning the Epiphany race is a great honor for both horse and rider, while the post-race celebrations, winner or not, are highly festive.

In the United States, in Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown by participants dressed as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw and the most creative throwing device.

Have you ever heard of a “King’s Cake?”[4] It is a cake that has a toy baby hidden inside, and it represents a symbolic search for the baby Jesus. In Spanish it is called Rosca de Reyes. I remember something similar that my grandmother would do, though it is totally unrelated. She would hide coins inside the birthday cake! It was a great joy to find the quarter, and a total bummer if it was your birthday and you only got a nickel.

But back to the King’s Cake. There is another, more subtle meaning to be found in this tradition. As Christians gather around the table to share a meal, it is a reminder that Christ is found where two or three are gathered. It can also remind us of that story in Luke 24 called the “Road to Emmaus.” “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). As we celebrate Epiphany, we participate in the search of the Magi, and we find God in a surprisingly familiar place: the table.

Hospitality was a key aspect of near-Eastern culture, and there is a reciprocal nature to hospitality. Often when guests receive hospitality and food from a host, they will bless the household that welcomes them. A Polish Epiphany custom is to “chalk the door” with special markings. The markings might look like this: 20 †K † M † B † 21. The numbers correspond to the calendar year, in this case 2021. The crosses stand for Christ. The letters have a dual significance. K, M, and B are the initials of the of the Magi, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They are also an abbreviation of the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat, which means “Christ bless this house.”

There is a liturgy of blessing, including the passage from Matthew which we just read, which is used to bless the house, and I will end with this blessing:

Peace be with this house and all who dwell in it,
and peace to all who enter here.
In keeping the feast of Epiphany,
we celebrate the Magi’s search for the infant king,
the Christ child’s appearing to the world,
and the peace and hospitality shared
between the Magi and the Holy Family.

May this home in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell.
May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ
which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.



[4] The information about the “King’s Cake” and the “Blessing of the Magi” are from Amber and John Inscore Essick, “Distinctive Traditions of Epiphany” © 2011 Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University.

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