The Meaning of Epiphany

The following is today’s “Credo” column in the Times, written by the learned Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar, Geoffrey Rowell. You might wish to take notice of the last paragraph – I must admit that I have never really meditated on the Feast of Epiphany as marking what Bishop Rowell calls “the triumph of God’s redeeming love over the imprisoning determinism of astrology.”

On January 6, 1858, a 21-year-old man was ill in bed. As a devout Christian, knowing that it was the Feast of the Epiphany, he read the Gospel for the day, in which St Matthew tells of the journey of the wise men guided by a star to find the infant Jesus, acknowledging Him as the promised Messiah, the anointed one of God, offering Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Inspired by that Gospel, William Chatterton Dix wrote what has become one of the most popular of Epiphany hymns, “As with gladness men of old, Did the guiding star behold”. Like many other Epiphany hymns and sermons it takes up the theme of the journey, the pilgrimage, of the Magi, which is rewarded by finding in the infant Jesus, the God who comes among us in a self-emptying of love and grace, and points us thereby on our human journey to that Divine Love as the light of our lives, their end and their goal.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in a Nativity sermon in 1620, whose theme T. S. Eliot took up in his poem, The Journey of the Magi, spoke of the journey being at the worst time of the year, and a journey full of dangers, “through Arabia Deserta . . . famous for . . . robberies, and even to this day”, yet a journey on which they did not hesitate to set out, so urgent were they to find the Christ. Andrewes concludes by urging his hearers to come to receive the bread of life in the Eucharist, for Bethlehem means “the house of bread”, noting that in ancient times the canister in which the Sacrament was kept had a star engraved upon it to show us that now the star leads us to Christ present in the Eucharist.


Today, on this Feast of the Epiphany, gold, frankincense and myrrh are offered on behalf of the Queen in the Chapel Royal. This ancient custom is yet another reminder of how this story has caught the Christian imagination. So fertile was that imagination that the Magi — in origin astrologers, or Zoroastrian priests — have become kings, with names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Their relics were even found and brought first to Milan and then to Cologne, where they are now housed in a magnificent reliquary in the cathedral, though Marco Polo reported seeing tombs claimed to be those of the Magi at Saveh in Persia. From as long ago as Irenaeus, the 2nd-century Bishop of Lyons, who defended the Christian faith against the Gnostic “New Age” speculation, the gifts of the Magi have been seen as symbols — gold for kingship, incense, whose sweet-smelling clouds symbolise prayer as they conceal and permeate holy places, for the God who is to be worshipped, and myrrh, one of the aromatic spices used for burial.

Ancient Syriac traditions, which spoke of Adam taking these things from the Garden of Eden, see the Magi bringing these gifts as an acknowledgement of Jesus as the Second Adam and of paradise restored. In Ethiopia they are portrayed as archangels with wings, as archangels had escorted Adam and Eve out of paradise with these gifts as a reminder of what they had lost, and now archangels bring these gifts again from heaven. The Magi become three, because there are three gifts, and, much later, three of different races, though earlier they are three of different ages.

Epiphany means showing, revelation or manifestation. In the East it had at its heart the baptism of Christ, where the Trinity was revealed in the Father’s voice, the Son going down into the water, and the descent of the Spirit. In the West it was the manifestation of Christ to the Gentile or non-Jewish world. But it also celebrated the triumph of God’s redeeming love over the imprisoning determinism of astrology, and the principalities and powers that St Paul calls “the elemental spirits of the Universe”. An early Christian writer, Ignatius of Antioch, teaches that in consequence of the star leading to the Christ-child, “magic was dissolved, ignorance was abolished, and the old kingdom destroyed”. The love of God triumphs over every imprisoning determinism and the vague forces of New Age — the spirituality of the religion section of airport bookshops. Indeed, on this Feast of the Epiphany “wise men, all ways of knowledge past, to the shepherds’ wonder came at last”. May we do the same.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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