There Came Wise Men From The East
Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas in the old calendar. Although we associate “King Cake” with Mardi Gras, it was originally a sweet bread served on Epiphany in honor of the three kings.
Tradition has handed down the names of the wise men as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but the Gospel account is vague: It simply names them as Magi or “wise men.” There has been considerable scholarly debate as to the Magi’s number, origin, religion, and even their existence.
Hitch Your Wagon To a Star
Epiphany is now observed as a time for focusing on the mission of the church in reaching others by “showing” Jesus as the Savior of all people. It is also a time of focusing on Christian brotherhood and fellowship.
Epiphany can be a time of year for the occasion for illumination and discovery, a breakthrough moment in which those things that are most real and thus most divine in human life come shining through.
“I see him, though not now, I behold him, though not near;
A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall arise from Israel.” Numbers 24:17
Many of the early church writers saw this as a prophecy about the coming Messiah, a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus, who is viewed as both the star and the staff—both guiding light and daily support for the people of God.
The people of the ancient world believed that the appearance of a new star or comet was supposed to herald the birth of important rulers.
Paradoxically, the glorious star that lighted their way guided them to a humble place; an ordinary house in a small Judean town. In spite of what we normally see in nativity scenes and Christmas cards, the travelers did not visit the Holy Family while there were in the stable at the inn. By the time the Magi arrived, the census was long over.
Old Christmas or Second Christmas
Shetland Islanders, who lived in the northernmost Scottish Isles, called Epiphany Old Christmas or Second Christmas.
In Ireland, the feast went by many names, including Little Christmas and Nollaig no mBan or Women’s Christmas, but it was celebrated with a splendid tea party to which only women were invited.
This charming custom was popular in rural communities, especially the south and west of Ireland, as late as the 1940s, but in recent years it has spread to cities, including those with large Irish immigrant communities in Canada and Australia.
(From Celtic Teas with Friends by Elizabeth Knight)
Foods of Epiphany
Because the Magi came from the Orient, many of the common traditional foods served on this day are spicy. A common custom in many cultures is the Epiphany Cake.
Different parts of Europe have different traditional recipes for the Epiphany Cake—from almond-paste-filled pastry, the French “galette de Rois” topped by a golden paper crown, to a British fruit-filled, iced, and layered confection. The traditional Epiphany cake is studded with candied fruit jewels as recognition, by the Magi/Three Kings, of the Infant Jesus as Christ the King.
An Old English & Irish punch, which dates from the Middle Ages, is a punch called Lamb’s Wool, which probably gets it to name from the wooly appearance of the flesh of the roasted apples floating in the cider.
The colors of Epiphany are usually the colors of Christmas, white and gold, the colors of celebration, newness, and hope that signify the most sacred days of the church year.
“They Offered Him Gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”
The Magi’s gifts were not only rich in value but also in symbolism. Gold was a sign of Jesus’ kingship as the Son of David.
Frankincense, which was used in worship services since ancient times, symbolized his divinity as the Son of God. Myrrh was one of the ointments used when preparing a body for burial, and therefore indicates Jesus’s death.
Three Things Stand Out As Being Significant For Our Own Faith Journey
The Magi made a long journey in the dark which is symbolic of our own pilgrimage of faith.
They were willing to face danger and evil for the sake of a true king. They faced the dangers of travel and risked an encounter with an evil ruler because they were driven by their desire to meet Jesus.
Often, our modern society is no less hostile to gospel values; how firm is our resolve?
They went home by another way. We spend all Advent preparing to meet the Promised One. Perhaps we will also go home another way.
Our Christmas experiences should change us, so that we will not go back to the same old ways of living but rather choose a new path, set out on a new journey, renewed in faith and hope, guided not only by the star but by the Spirit speaking within us.