Epiphany, January 6th, is also known as Three Kings’ Day and the 3 kings are also known as the 3 Wise Men or Magi. (Scroll to the end to see the answer in the question)
But Epiphany also celebrates the other two epiphanies (revelations from above) of Jesus as well; the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. (2 more posts! Yay!)
Most of us know the story that comes to us from the Gospel writer Matthew (2:1-12).
The Magi came from the East, from the Persian Empire, following the Star. When they arrived they asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star and have come to worship Him.” They were stopped by Herod who said, “Come on back to tell me where you find him so I too can pay him homage.” They went, found the Holy Family, fell before Him, and gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then in a dream, they were told to not go back to Herod by the Angel of God, for Herod wanted to kill the newborn. Then the Angel told Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to get out of reach of Herod. All did as commanded. (And then the slaughter of the poor Holy Innocents.) (and clearly, I paraphrased)
There’s somethings in this that we today may not understand. So let’s take a look at it.
The Magi were from the tribe of Mede. And in this tribe they served a priestly function. They were practitioners of divination, astronomers, and astrologers. Many people from many different cultures looked to the sky for answers. And it was like that for a long time. Celestial bodies weren’t understood then as they are today. The stars, planets, asteroids, and meteor showers were seen as portents of events. There were many who charted the stars and looked to see what prophecies these might be pointing too. (This kept up for a very long time even to today. There were some who pointed to sky this past September, because of the orientation of planets and constellations, as the “Woman in Revelations”. Just remember kids: No one knows the day or hour but God.)
We hear a little about them in the Books of Daniel and Esther. They advised decrees of the Persian rulers, namely Darius the Mede (more than likely a viceroy of Babylon and not a king as it is mentioned Darius’ rule and that of Cyrus the Persian ran concurrent) and King Xerxes (yes, of 300 fame), to be written into “the law of the Medes and Persians” and “the laws of Persia and Media”. In Esther, we hear of how Queen Esther and Mordecai influence Xerxes to protect and defend the Jewish people. Xerxes also made Zoroastrianism, and with it astrology, the national religion of his empire. It is a tie to Daniel, who was made head of the all the wise men when he interpreted the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, that the Magi would have known of the prophecies of the Savior to come and been watching for. This blending of their own religion, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism helped keep them in a great position in the eastern governments for a very long time, at the very least 600 years.
A visit from the Magi, the kingmakers, would have been a big deal. They would have been treated with much respect because of their position in determining kings. Herod was not bestowed with the honor of having been made king by the Magi, just by the Roman rule. The Magi searching for this newborn King of the Jews would have put his rule in jeopardy since this was also the title that the Roman Emperor gave to him, and thus the need to kill him.
When they found Jesus, they fell before him and paid him homage. Psalm 72:10-11, “…all kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall serve him.” These Magi, probably more powerful than the kings they crowned (well, except for one, but he was crowned by the Almighty), fell and honored the new King of the Jews, One True King, the King of kings.
Following the Star also fulfilled other Biblical prophecies. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel…” (Nm 24:17) and from Isaiah, “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (60:6).
They brought with them these gifts, all which would have been customary when paying homage to a king or a god. But we can also see a certain significance to them as well.
The first gift was gold and is easy to understand. Back then as today, gold was a precious metal. It for obvious reasons symbolized Jesus’ Kingship. But we also see over and over, gold is an offering to God and the Ark of the Covent was covered in gold. This also points to his divinity as God, one of the three persons of the Trinity.
The lines between frankincense and myrrh are intertwined. Both are incense which were used in the temple. And both have medical uses.
Frankincense is an incense. As it burns, the sweet fragrant smoke rises with our prayers to God. Frankincense symbolized Jesus as priest and with that role, holiness and righteousness. It was the priests of the temple who would use incense in offerings. Of its medicinal uses, one is purifying the air. Perhaps this also points to Christ purifying humans, washing us of our sins by his pure sacrifice.
Myrrh when burned is piney and bitter instead of sweet. It was used in embalming, eluding to Jesus’ Death and symbolized bitterness, suffering, and affliction. Its medicinal use mentioned in conjunction with Jesus was that of a painkiller. He offered wine mixed with myrrh on the Cross as a way to easy his suffering.
It was St. Bede who gave us the names and descriptions of the 3 Magi. “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard… who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned… honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar … by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.” The number of Magi is never listed in the Gospel. Western churches put at 3 in relation with the 3 gift. The Eastern churches put the number at 12, which is more in line with what is believed to be true of the Magi as a political/spiritual people.
Besides saying that the Magi left and avoid Herod, nothing more is said in the Gospel. A Medieval calendar of Saints, printed in Cologne, Germany, read, “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in A.D. 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on Jan. 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6, aged 112; and St. Caspar on Jan. 11, aged 109.” The Martyrology lists these dates as the Magi’s’ feast days as well.
That’s a lot. Check back to see some neat traditions that we do to celebrate Epiphany!
Here’s the answer to the question in the heading:
In the Latin Rite:
The Solemnity of Christmas ends its Feast on the Octave of Christmas, which is January 1st, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
The 12 Days of Christmas ends on Epiphany (which is technically the 13th day, so technically it ends on 12th Night, the Vigil as Epiphany is its own feast). Move your Magi to your Nativity and take your tree down after this day (don’t worry, mine is still up too)
The “official” end of the Christmas season is The Baptism of the Lord (which was just this past Monday). After this time we go into Ordinary time, get ready to see the priests and deacons wearing green, most of the time, until Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.
But wait! Don’t take down that Nativity yet. Keep it up until the Presentation of the Lord on Feb 2, as it is still a feast of the Infant Jesus.