Today is the Feast of Epiphany, and Three King’s day. Growing up in a low (or non-) liturgical church and only being in this church for three years, I still have a lot to catch up when it comes to these kind of liturgical seasons and feast days. Three kings is quite simple, it’s an obvious reference to the wise men from the East, but it is, especially as a non-native English speaker, quite hard to grasp what Epiphany is actually
about. What does epiphany have to do with Christmas and the three kings?
In the Christian tradition epiphany was first mostly linked to the celebration of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, the dove descending upon his head and the voice from heaven saying: ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ This is the moment Christ begins his earthly ministry and is revealed to the people. So epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God on earth in His Son Jesus Christ. God becoming man and walking over this earth. The question that remains: Why are these two occasions, that probably happened around thirty years apart from each other: the visit of the wise men and the baptism of Christ, connected to each other and celebrated on the same day?
In the two readings appointed for this service we can see the connection between the wise men and the epiphany of Christ. We heard this very familiar story, that we listen to every year, the three wise men coming from the East following the star, searching for the King of the Jews and finally finding him in Bethlehem. Recognizing Christ, knowing they’ve found what they were looking for, they fall down and worship Him. The mystery is revealed to them. They are among the first ones that take part in the epiphany of Christ.
St. Paul refers to this epiphany that happens when Christ comes to live on earth in the reading from Ephesians when he says: ‘the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.’ (Ephesians 3:4-5) So St. Paul refers to the coming of Christ as an epiphany, a sudden revelation to the world and this is a revelation that changes the world. St. Paul continues: ‘This grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God.’ (Ephesians 3: 8-9) So this revelation is meant to be spread over the whole earth, and so it did. These two readings and these two feasts are linked to each other because these three kings are going on their journey, to find the truth and this truth is being manifested to them in Christ. And St. Paul writes about this truth being manifested on the whole earth.
I found it quite interesting that when I recently was in Egypt, we were in a cafe and I heard Christmas songs playing and one of these songs had the text ‘Christ the Saviour is born’ in it. I was surprised to hear this in a country where the vast majority of the people is Muslim. Also in the Netherlands, now a very secular country, around Christmas time everyone is listening to all these Christmas songs on the radio and also pop songs, from for example Queen, with texts like ‘Thank God it’s Christmas’ repeated 11 times in that one song. Maybe the people singing it are not all Christian, the people listening to it are most certainly not all Christians, but the mystery of God becoming man is sung out over the whole world innumerable times, and especially around Christmas time, people should need to stay in their houses for a month and barricade the doors to avoid hearing about this mystery of God becoming man in Jesus Christ.
2000 years ago, we see this mystery being revealed to people. An epiphany. Epiphany is also defined as an experience ‘When a person sees reality in a new light.’ This is happening all the time around Jesus Christ. People have been expecting Him, people see Him and recognise Him being the Son of God. When they see Him they realise that He is what they were waiting for and have been looking for. The shepherds in the field, the three wise men, Simeon and Anna during the presentation or dedication of Christ in the temple. Later on when Philip tells Nathanael (later both disciples of Christ) “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One whom the prophets foretold — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45) People seem to experience the ‘we found it’, ‘we found Him’, ‘this is it we have been looking for all our lives’. It’s exactly what Paul says: People have been longing for the mystery that was concealed, and now they can see Him.
Tolstoy is an absolute master in taking his readers through this process of searching for the truth and the meaning of life in many of his books and stories. The character, Andrey Bolkonski, in Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is someone one can easily sympathize and/or identify with. He is young, ambitious, noble and courageous. He’s involved with making plans to defeat Napoleon in the war, is part of the highest circles in the army. He is even more sympathetic because he dislikes the bragging and the political games that are being played in these circles. When he is in battle, the Russian army gets defeated and his whole battalion flees. Then he takes up the flag, and runs in front of the troops and encourages his whole battalion to wage another attack. Suddenly he is struck by a bullet and falls on his back. He sees the sky and is amazed by the beauty of the sky. He realises that all is vanity, all is falsehood and the whole war doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
All his ambitions, the war against the French, everything he bothered about suddenly disappears and gives room to this feeling of wonder, peace and quiet when he is confronted with this reality of a whole other level. And these are elements we see back in this revelation to the wise men, the shepherds, the first disciples. These wise men probably being rich, ruling an estate or even a country (we don’t know much about them), being wealthy and always being able to enjoy gold, frankincense and myrrh in their palace, but all these businesses seem to lose their relevance, when they see the star, hear about the prophecy and go on their journey. Like the shepherds, leaving their flocks in the field. Not because they were careless, but because they had discovered something of a much higher meaning, that all these earthly material things just don’t seem to matter anymore. Or when Peter and Andrew are fishing and Jesus calls them to ‘follow Him’, they leave their nets at once and follow Him. (Matthew 4:18-20) They are confronted with God in human flesh. And then all these various material and earthly things, just seem irrelevant and a bit petty. (Try to think about the importance of a business deal or politics at a funeral.)
This doesn’t mean that the sheep died because of hunger or wolves, the palaces of the wise men crumbled and decayed in time and the boats the disciples sunk because of lack of maintenance. I’m pretty sure the wise men went back to their country and looked after whatever they had to do, and we can read in the Bible that the shepherds returned to their sheep and even the disciples go fishing. And yes, when Andrey Bolkonski recovers from his wound, Napoleon still has to be defeated and he also returns to the world of politics and war. But something’s changed. They saw the mystery of God becoming man and this shaped their lives. The shepherds returned praising God (Luke 2:20), we know about the disciples that most of them died as martyrs because of the expression of their belief in Christ and the wise men probably also spread the Gospel by word and deed. All these lives were transformed and a strong desire to love God and their neighbour became a part of it. And in loving God and their neighbour, God is manifested. I believe it was Mother Teresa who once said: ‘When I go to Eucharist in the morning I receive Christ and when I later go out on the streets and take a dying man in my arms, I receive Christ again.’
When we follow Christ’s command to love one another, when we receive Christ in Holy Communion or when we appreciate the beauty in God’s creation: we see God manifested on earth, and our ambitions, our plans, our studies, our jobs and even our problems seem for a moment to be less relevant, so that we, knowing why we are made can go back to our daily work and do this with renewed strength, joy and love.