from the Believing Thomas archives

Believing Thomas 10 (January 2000)

musings on the church calendar from one who seldom doubts

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: "The Three Wise Men"

With the advent (neat segue) of January, we are still counting in the Christmas season up to the Twelfth Night, which comes on the evening before January 6th. That, as all Anglicans know, is when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.

The word "epiphany" comes from the Greek word epiphaneia meaning "manifestation" according to The Encylopaedia Britannica or "appearance" according to Compton's Encyclopedia. Together with Christmas and Easter, it ranks as one of the three oldest Christian feast days.

According to Christian tradition, the Christ child was made manifest to the Magi on or about that time. I have learned from The Encylopaedia Britannica account that the Feast of the Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church, in which it originally was the time when the birth of our Lord was celebrated. The Church in Rome, however, began celebrating Christmas on December 25th about the year 354 A.D. Later in the 4th Century the Roman leaders of the Church began celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Apparently, in the Eastern Church, January 6th is when the Baptism of Christ is now commemorated.

The word "Magi" being the plural of "magus" comes from the Persian "magu" (who I hope were not nearsighted), meaning magician, who were members of a priestly class of Medes and Persians. St. Matthew's gospel (Matt.2:1-12) recounts how these noble men from afar followed the Star to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. While that gospel does not mention either their names or their number, a strong tradition has grown about these visitors from the East. The Eastern Orthodox tradition numbered them at twelve, but the Western tradition sets the number at just three, no doubt springing from the mention of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh mentioned by St. Matthew.

Subsequent traditions sprang up that these "wise men" were royalty, perhaps, suggests The Encylopaedia Britannica, due to the prophetic reference in Psalm 72, verse 11 ("May all kings fall down before him.") By approximately the 8th century, these 3 visitors had acquired names; they were first known as Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa. As most of you know, they are now more commonly referred to as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. The first of these nobles supposedly was from Arabia, the second from Persia and the last from India.

My research also taught me two more interesting facts. Their bodies are supposed to have been brought to Constantinople by Empress Helen along about the 7th century; and from there taken, first to Milan and finally, about 1162 A.D., to Cologne, according to Compton's, by Frederick Barbarosa. The European Christians have much revered the Magi. They even have a feast day of their own on July 23rd. In Barcelona, Spain, for example, on the 6th of January, a boat comes into the harbor bearing "three kings" who then are paraded through the streets of the city.

Whatever the true facts may be, I am sure that you join me in thanking our merciful Father for allowing His Son to be revealed to us, the gentiles. May we each have a bright and shining Epiphany.+

(c) 2000, 2016 Thomas H. Peterson

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