Time for Revelations

The Oft Forgot Epiphany Celebration, Wise Men and All

Ever had a revelation? Ever, in the middle of everything ordinary, touched the depths of what is mystery ?

Despite the post-New Year hangovers, this is just the time for revelations.

According to ancient tradition, the 6th of January is the Christian feast of the Epiphany (Día de los reyes in Spanish)—celebrated Sunday, January 4 by Catholics and most Protestants in the U.S. and Canada. The word epiphany means “revelation” or “manifestation.”

The historical dirt

The early Christian origins of this feast are shrouded in mystery, but we know it came before Christmas, and scholars believe it was originally some kind of celebration of Jesus’ glory , probably at his baptism (dunk-o-rama, Holy Spirit shows up, celestial voice speaks). Later it came to be associated with his birth.

In the Eastern Christian churches, January 6 continued for many centuries to be commemorated as the anniversary of Christ’s birth (still is in the Russian Orthodox Church ), while in the West, December 25 took on that role. The 25th was the ancient winter solstice date, probably selected to win folks away from the popular pagan celebrations of solstice and of the nativity of the god Mithras, the “Unconquered Sun.” Thus, the birthday of the Sun became the birthday of the Son.

When December’s Christmas celebrations really got going (even way before Santa and TV specials), the January 6 holiday (end of the 12 days of the song) became associated with the coming of the wise men as reported in the gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). Because these wise men, or magi (they were later called kings ), were said to have come from foreign lands in the nebulous East, their arrival signified the importance of Christ’s coming for all humankind. The mystery of God was being revealed to all peoples in humble and very human surroundings.

Looking for signs
If you are like me, you spend a lot of time looking for God in life’s extraordinary experiences, or even in supernatural signs. Yet I often find that I miss the revelational boat that way. The savior born in Bethlehem spent his whole life trying to get through to people that God the Father was already present among them in ordinary life.

I have a friend who prepares couples for marriage in Catholic ceremonies. He begins the arrangements with a simple question: Do you think God brought you together?

He tells me sometimes the couples get uncomfortable. Sometimes they get naïvely romantic. But sometimes they seem to know what he means, even if they would use different words to describe it. They know that each one has been, in some way, a revelation to the other, a manifestation of divine mystery—what cannot be comprehended but leads us deeper into life and love.

A final word on the wise guys
Incidentally, the Bible never says that there were three magi, or wise men. And the names—Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—come from later traditions. There are even different numbers and names in other strains of Christian tradition.

One legend has it that (doubting) St. Thomas later converted the elderly wise men to the Christian faith. Their bones were later found in Persia and preserved as relics. St. Helena brought them to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in the fourth century, and in the 12th century they were enshrined in the cathedral at Cologne , where they rest today.

May the new year bring you many epiphanies.