The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord

Posted by Thaddaeus

Matthew 2: 1-12


When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” 
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”  After their audience with the king they set out.  And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.


Background:  Early Christians do not celebrate the birth of Christ separately until nearly the 4th century.  Instead, they commemorate Epiphany, which begs the question why the arrival of three supposed kings of the Orient takes precedent over the birth of Christ in the early Church?  The magi story only occurs in Matthew.  The other gospel writers are silent.  None of the Church Fathers say the magi are kings.  Rationalists view the magi as a myth along with the legend of a “massacre of the innocents.”  There is no extra-biblical evidence that Herod kills hundreds of male babies two and under in the district of Bethlehem.  Jewish historian Josephus writes about Herod’s brutality and paranoia, but does not cite this incident.  Some scholars say it may have happened on scale too small to mention.  Bethlehem was a village of 1,500; actuarially, too small to consist of more than about a dozen baby boys two and under.


The Epiphany of the Lord:  Most Catholics think that the visit of the magi is the Epiphany.  This is so because the magi story is the common liturgical reading for Epiphany Sunday.  Early Christians celebrate four major manifestations during the Christmas Season, which spans from December 25 to January 6 (the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas”).  The Feast of Epiphany reflected on the Nativity, the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Visit of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus.  Over time the others become separate feast days and the Visit of the Magi is fused with Epiphany on January 6.  One tradition holds that the magi descend from an eastern school of Jewish Magian priests taught by Daniel.  They are astrologers who know the prophecy and watch the sky for the mysterious Star of Bethlehem.  They are not kings; rather they are the royal advisors to the kings of Midian, Ephah and Sheba who also accompanied them.