The war on Epiphany

magiI am preparing to leave beautiful Colorado, where I spent the last few days of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany with my family.

Epiphany is a liturgical festival observed on January 6. Epiphany is also a season that lasts until the beginning of Lent and encompasses four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter, for Western churches. It is the oldest of the Christmas festivals and originally the most important. And it is the climax of the Christmas season in the churches of the East.

In the Western Church, Epiphany encompasses three incidents about the divinity of Christ: the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men as they are sometimes called), the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at Cana.

For a helpful article on how Epiphany is celebrated in Eastern traditions, you could do worse than check out Los Angeles Times writer K. Connie Kang’s recent piece. She notes that Epiphany in some parts of the world celebrates only the adoration of the Magi:

But in the Eastern Church — composed of about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide — Epiphany takes on a more complex theological meaning. The focal point is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the appearance of the Holy Spirit.

“Epiphany means the manifestation of the Trinity,” said the Very Rev. Father Michel Najim, dean of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Indeed, like many Orthodox, Najim prefers to refer to Epiphany, which means “revelation,” as Theophany, which translates as “manifestation of God.”

He emphasized that at Jesus’ baptism, the three persons in the Christian conception of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — were revealed. The Bible says that when Jesus came up from the water after being baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and alighted on Jesus. When this happened, a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The piece is full of local color, but it helps to lay out some of these basic theological explanations as she does.

I also meant to highlight St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend’s piece from a few weeks ago. Using a scene from a local Christmas pageant with some early Magi as a hook, he delved into the significance of the Wise Men to Christianity:

These three kings of orient are, in fact, not kings at all. “Magi” comes from the Greek word “magoi,” meaning sorcerers or astrologers — the scientists of their day. Scientific theories attempting to explain the Star of Bethlehem have historically included a supernova, a comet, or most often, a planetary alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

“These were men who searched the sky for signs,” said the Rev. John Paul Heil, professor of New Testament who recently left Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis to teach at Catholic University of America in Washington. “They were learned people who would advise kings as to what was going on in the heavens.”

In later centuries the magi themselves began to be depicted as kings.

Later Christian tradition gave the magi names — Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar — and since the 12th century their purported bones (some say their skulls) have been encased in the Shrine of the Three Kings now in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

These types of stories may seem simplistic but there are a great number of readers who are curious about these worship practices and religious symbolism.

Update: Let us know if you find any good local stories on Epiphany for Western or Eastern Christians. This is a good one from Ann Rodgers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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  • Tope

    The NYT had an interesting article on Epiphany among the Armenian Orthodox. CNN also had a nice gallery of pictures from Theophany and Epiphany celebrations, but I don’t know how to link it – it’s a Javascript pop up window.

    Out of curiosity, what’s up with the title of this post?

  • Tope

    Never mind, I get it now. Cute.

  • Robert Hargrave

    The St. Petersburg & Tampa papers always have a bunch of pieces on the gigantic Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs, where tens of thousands gather as the Greek Orthodox Archbishop (last year the Patriarch) blesses the bayou and teenaged boys dive into the water to retrieve his cross.

    One of this year’s pieces:

  • Robert Hargrave