Epiphany: The boundless limits of the love of God

Drawing on all three lectionary readings set for the Feast of the Epiphany (Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12) Bishop David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, draws on his experience to reflect on the history and meaning of the Feast, and the varied ways that it is celebrated in the countries of our diocese.

Epiphany (Greek epiphaneia – manifestation, appearance, or showing forth) is possibly the oldest festival in the Christian calendar, after Easter. The Ancient Eastern Church celebrated the baptism of our Lord on this day when a voice from heaven declared, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, thus showing to the world who this man Jesus was. To this was added a focus on the wedding at Cana and Christ’s first miracle, showing his divine nature. In the Western Church the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated, perhaps to displace the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. Around the 4th century scholars think there was an ‘an exchange of feasts’, with the West additionally adopting Epiphany and the East also taking on Christmas.

The Magi are central to the Gospel of the day – possibly Babylonian astrologers or religious wise men from ancient Persia (modern day Iran, which borders with our Diocese in Europe). The Old Testament was widely known in the ancient lands of Babylonia and Persia. There was a presence of Jews in exile there in the 6th century BC and some of the deportees’ descendants never returned to Judea. Wise men in those lands would know of the sacred texts of the Jews who lived among them. Isaiah, with its themes of light and darkness, (Arise, shine; for your light has come…for darkness shall cover the earth …nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn) may have had a particular resonance for eastern sages especially if they were adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which has cosmic dualistic leanings: day and night, good and evil.

Christians have read St Matthew’s story of the Magi in conjunction with Psalm 72 where in verse 10 we read ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’[1] and with Isaiah 60.1-6, which speaks of gold and frankincense. Fr Nicholas King SJ (who was our Bible Scholar at the last Diocesan Readers’ Conference) points out in his translation of the Bible that not only should the reference to gold and frankincense immediately alert us to the gifts brought by the Magi, but also Isaiah speaks of camels, which is why we think that the Wise Men came on camels, for this mode of transport is not mentioned by Matthew at all![2]

magi gifts cologne

According to tradition the relics of the Magi lie in the great Cathedral of the city where our Diocesan Synod meets, Cologne.

Throughout the countries of our Diocese can be found a richness of Epiphany traditions. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate both the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January. It is a lively festival in Spain, el Día de los Reyes Magos, the Feast of the Three Kings, perhaps most important for children for on this day (not Christmas) they receive their presents. The French enjoy an almond cake called Galette des Rois, the King’s cake, which usually has a toy crown or a figurine of the baby Jesus inside, and is topped with a gold paper crown. In Russia (although the Church there observes the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian) Epiphany is marked by cutting holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, to bathe in the freezing water! In German speaking lands, from the reference in the Gospel to the Magi “entering the house” where Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus was, people bless their houses after the Epiphany mass by marking over the entrance door with chalk: 20+C+M+B+19 (for this year). The initials either stand for Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or for the traditional names of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

These names date from the 9th century but became symbolic of the three human groups from the then known three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, to point to Jesus’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the nations of the world, signified in the persons of the Magi. In later years the three kings were also associated with the phases of human life – youth, maturity and old age. This tradition underlines a truth basic to Christian teaching: God’s salvation is not offered just to one exclusive group. St Paul speaks to this truth in the second reading,

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel(Ephesians 3.5-6).

These days in Europe there is pressure on governments to exclude people from other countries. In some places foreigners are becoming suspect. But Epiphany tells us that there is no exclusivity with Christ; there is no one outside the boundaries of God’s love. Epiphany challenges us to expand our tents to welcome everyone. Even pagan astrologers were among the first to worship him and were blessed by his presence.

The celebration of the arrival of wise men from the East represent a new beginning for humanity. They represent the entire human race’s longing for the light of God’s grace and truth. They symbolise the procession of all of God’s children from every part of the world, who are on the way, seeking Christ, and who on finding him offer gifts and worship. Christ our God is for all the peoples of the earth. This is the thrilling message of Epiphany.

From a pure virgin by divine command appeared the light that lighteneth man’s days.

A brilliant star proclaimed the glad event in the far heaven shone its ardent blaze.

The Persian magi saw the effulgent star, illumining the sky like solar rays.

Towards Bethlehem with joyful steps they sped to offer him their precious gift and praise.

(Translation of words by the modern Persian poet, Hamidi, in the Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran)

st simon zelotes church iran

The Anglican Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran

[1] Common Worship translation

[2] The Bible: A study Bible freshly translated by Nicholas King, Kevin Mayhew, 2013


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s