(some churches are celebrating the Epiphany on Jan 2)
If we think that the Feast of the Epiphany is only about the visit of the (three) kings or magi or wise men “from the east” then we only partially appreciate it!
Obviously the word EPIPHANY is Greek and it means MANIFESTATION. It is a Greek name because the Festival was in origin and for its first period of celebration an Eastern Mediterranean feast, not a Roman one. Originally the Greek-speaking Church celebrated both the Birth of Christ and the Manifestation on one and the same day, January 6, while the Latin-speaking Church celebrated Christmas on December 25.
From the early fifth century, the West celebrated the Nativity on December 25th and the Manifestation to the Gentiles on January 6. It is probably the case that the focusing of the feast of the Manifestation particularly on the visit of the magi/kings is related to the moving of their relics from Constantinople to Milan in the fourth century, when Milan was capital of the western half of the Roman Empire.
Related to the Manifestation of the Son of God incarnate to the Gentiles are two other central Manifestations observed at this time (and very particularly so in the East) in the Christian Year – and found in the Readings for Morning & Evening Prayer or for the Eucharist on the feast or the Sunday after the feast in the West.
These other two are (a) the Manifestation of the Holy Trinity at the Baptism of Jesus when the Father speaks to the Son, and the Spirit from the Father descends upon the Son; and (b) the Manifestation of Jesus as the One Person made known in two Natures, divine & human, when he performed the “sign” at Cana of Galilee – the miracle of water into wine.
If we put these three Manifestations together we have in biblical, narrative form what was achieved dogmatically by the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church in their setting forth by Gentile Christian bishops the dogma of the One, Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity and of the One Person of Christ Jesus made know in two natures, divine and human.
Returning to the Western celebration of the Epiphany feast proper on January 6, it is an old tradition that states that there were three visitors (because three gifts) and that they were kings. In fact reading of prophecy encouraged the idea that they were kings, “The Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Psalm 72:10 & Isaiah 60:3). Further, the belief that the new king should be born in Canaan was seen in the prophecy of Balaam (Num. 24:17).
The Manifestation to mankind by the Holy Trinity has for its ultimate purpose the deification of man through salvation, sanctification and glorification. Thus the Collect for Epiphany in The Book of Common Prayer prays that “we may have the fruition (= enjoyment) of thy glorious Godhead” – the beatific vision, the seeing of the glory of the Father in the face of the Incarnate Son.
THE EPIPHANY or The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[This Collect is to be used daily until the First Sunday after the Epiphany.]
Epistle: Ephesians 3:1-12 The Gospel: St Matthew 2:1-12
The magi were certainly non-Jews and thus as representatives of the Gentile peoples, they made the long pilgrimage to Bethlehem via Jerusalem – probably) from the country we now call Iraq. Their pilgrimage provides a model of the Christian pilgrimage through this life where we walk by faith until we are transported into the age to come where we walk by supernatural sight, the light of the exalted Lamb.
This Collect in its original Latin wording is based upon (a) the biblical narrative of the visit of the magi as recorded in Matthew 2; and (b) the thought that “we walk by faith and not by sight” on earth ( 2 Corinthians 5:7).
The translation in the BCP, however, does not bring out as clearly as possible, the second of these themes, the walking by faith now towards the future contemplation by sight in heaven. The petition in Latin may be more literally translated: “Mercifully grant that we, which know thee now by faith, may be led onwards until we come to gaze upon thy Exaltation [Majesty] by sight…”
It seems that Archbishop Cranmer had in mind the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and others, who spoke of the beatific vision in heaven as “the fruition of thy glorious Godhead.” So he used this expression rather than literally translating the Latin before him. The translation provided above points to the same glorious conclusion as Augustine & Cranmer had in mind, but it picks up more clearly on the theme of “being led onwards” (in the case of the magi by a star and of ourselves by faith) and of “contemplation/gazing” (the magi gazed at the heavens and then upon the Only-Begotten Son Incarnate, while we shall see the glory of the Father in the face of the exalted Jesus Christ).
What this Collect asks of God in Latin or in English is of course the important thing. The people of God make petition for divine assistance so that, after being faithful sojourners and pilgrims here on earth in this evil age, they will be experience the full realization of Christian hope and see the Glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ in the glorious age to come. But we must first walk by faith in order later by grace to walk by sight!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)