Introduction to Our Lord’s Epiphany
This feast was the Christmas of the Orientals, especially of the Church of Alexandria, where it seems to have supplanted the pagan feast of the sun and that of the flood of the Nile, on the occasion of which, one drew water of the river in a ceremonial rite which was christianized by the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus and by the feast of the water changed into wine at the wedding of Cana. This day naturally became a day of baptism. When, shortly after, the Roman and Eastern Churches “exchanged” their Christmas celebrations, the Latin liturgy also included the Baptism of Christ and the wedding of Cana. There are traces left in the Office of the Hours, in the celebration of the Baptism of Christ, which ends with the Epiphany, and even on the second Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Gospels of which revolve around the baptismal events of the Jordan (years A and B) or of the wedding of Cana (year C).
Little by little, in the Latin Church, the worship of the Magi became the main object of the feast. The popular tendency to settle on a second aspect at the expense of central reality has turned attention away from the magi, hence the name of the celebration of Kings. It would be better to say King’s Day. For these Magi (who have no scripture say they were kings) came to worship the “King of Israel”, a King-Priest to whom they offer significant presents: royal gold and priestly incense.
This celebration is, properly speaking, bigger than Christmas. Let’s say it is Christmas in its fullness. The Catholic people of the West, especially since Saint Francis of Assisi, the inventor of our cribs, prefers Christmas, and celebrates the historic event, the birth of the Child Jesus. The Orientals and, to a good extent, our liturgy, celebrate a deeper event: the Epiphany of God, the glorious manifestation of the Word of God in our midst.
Epiphany - manifestation - was said about a king when he came to visit a city, thus an event that gave rise to illuminations, celebrations and privileges. The feast of Epiphany also celebrates the One who “comes to visit His people” (Lk 1:68), the One who manifests in glory. It is no longer the child hidden in the crib, it is the King-Priest to whom the Church, like the Magi, brings the presents of her thanksgiving and her heart entirely given.
The celebration takes on a missionary, universalist color: these magicians, coming from afar, represent all the people of the world. Today we celebrate the young oversea churches that came late in the faith, but with all the ardor and dynamism of their youth. We are still celebrating - yes! - those men and women who sincerely seek, sometimes even doing so are also despising the Church. In good faith, like Saul in his “pure” ardor of the Pharisee. Ah! That they would have themselves an epiphany, like Saul on the road to Damascus, when the glory of God brightly blinded him! May God illuminate them with that light of which the star of the Magi is a herald!
Like a fan that is opened slowly to detail its wealth, the liturgy unfolds today’s Christmas in Epiphany, before unfolding this first Epiphany in an Easter Epiphany, then in a finale Epiphany. Thus, this glorious coming of Christ in our world and these magi representing “the nations”, the people still far from God, announce, at the beginning of the liturgical year, what this one will celebrate at its end: Christ King of all humanity, Gentiles and Jews alike. If Christmas can be said to be the family holiday, the Epiphany is the universal celebration. If, at Christmas, a sweet joy takes hold of us, at Epiphany, a glorious shudder runs through us, moves our soul, mysteriously dilates the heart and looks far away.