Mosaic of the three magi in Sant Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
The feast of the Epiphany, marked on 6 January, has become associated in the West with the arrival of three “wise men” – the magi – in Bethlehem. It’s a story that only the gospel writer Matthew tells (Matthew 2: 1-12).
However, Epiphany originally commemorated Jesus’ baptism (e.g. Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22) and the occasion on which he miraculously turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-12). Other events associated with Epiphany were the presentation of Jesus at the temple (see Marking Candlemas) and the actual birth of Jesus itself. The visit of the magi was in fact a later addition to the celebration.
Over time, these events became separated out and, arguably, their fundamental meaning became diminished as a result. They are all bright, focussed moments that proclaim to us: God is here – “”Emmanuel”. See our selection of hymns appropriate for Epiphany.
The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation”. We’re talking here about a manifestation (or manifestations) of God. In Hebrew tradition, one of the most memorable epiphanies was Moses’ experience of God in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). In these stories from the gospels, we are being told that all we need to know about God is present in the person and actions of Jesus.
As we mark the feast of Epiphany, perhaps we might reflect on two things in particular.
First, that the magi “from the East” are Gentiles. They come from outwith the Jewish tradition and do not know of the scriptural prophecies concerning the location of the Messiah’s birth (Matthew 2: 2-6). Already, at this very early stage in the story of Jesus, we are invited to understand that God’s love reaches beyond traditional boundaries to people who are not part of our own community.
Secondly, if our understanding of Epiphany includes not only the conclusion of the wise men’s two-year trek to a stable in Bethlehem but also the baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at Cana, then perhaps we are reminded that Epiphany is not the end of a journey; it’s only the beginning.