by Brooke Thomas
In the Biblical story, the Magi represent the non-Jewish people of the wider world. They come to meet and pay homage to the infant Jesus – an acknowledgement of the divine coming alongside us on earth and quite a contrast to the actions of the local Jewish leader, Herod who tries to have Jesus killed.
I think Epiphany is actually a fascinating church holiday, one that has been de-emphasised over time but is layered with a rich history and a wealth of symbolism.
The Feast of Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night and is observed and celebrated in a number of different ways all over the world.
You might know there is a tradition that says you should take your Christmas decorations down by Twelfth Night or twelve days after Christmas otherwise you’ll have bad luck in the new year.
It makes it seem like it marks the winding down of Christmas – pack the tree up, take down the tinsel, put away the punch bowl, and go back to work. But if all our celebrations are over by the time we recognise as the day the Magi arrive, it seems like the wise men may have missed the party.
The significance of their journey and their important revelation on behalf of all humanity is lost as we take the bottles and wrapping paper out to the recycling, tinker with our new toys, and think about life getting back to “normal”.
We’ve lost the importance of the Epiphany, an occasion which in many cultures and throughout history is marked as an incredibly joyous celebration of Jesus being revealed to all the people of the world, a Messiah who would transcend both the tradition and the times into which he was born.
So let me take you through some of the ways Epiphany is celebrated around the world. You might be surprised to find that Epiphany is behind many of the world’s biggest and most popular parties.
Like all good Christian holidays, the date of Epiphany aligns with a couple of preceding pagan festivals. In Medieval and earlier times, this period was a time of mid-winter festivities where people celebrated that the longest night of the year had passed and they gathered in celebrations to bless the next harvest before returning to their work in the fields to start ploughing. It was a time of dancing and dressing up and of sharing food and drink.
A key tradition of Twelfth Night is the sharing of a warm punch called Wassail and the eating of King Cake which I have here for you to enjoy today so please come and help yourselves. (This version of the punch is non-alcoholic). Hiding in one of the pieces of cake is a dried bean (was actually a cardamom pod so no one broke a tooth). Tradition holds that the person who finds the bean in their piece of cake is crowned king or queen of the festivities. I have a crown here for the king, so make yourself known if you score the bean.
The king is normally supposed to oversee all the partying as well as pay for next year’s cake…
The wearer of the crown is called the Lord of Misrule and embodies the freedom that people had at this time of year from their traditional roles while there was no field labouring and the focus was on community, hospitality and celebration which transcended the usual social order. Twelfth Night was a final frenzy of feasting, drinking and often-raucous merry making before the community returned to its daily working grind for the rest of the winter.
Wassail is the drink of good wishes and holiday cheer and has been associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. The usually ale- or cider-based drink, seasoned with spices and honey, was served in huge bowls and shared with family and friends with the greeting “Wassail” which is from the old English term for “be well.” People would even pour a little wassail on their fruit tress to bless them for a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
This whole celebration owes something to the earlier Roman festival of Saturnalia which similarly prepared for the next harvest and relaxed the normal social conventions. The festival honoured Saturn, the god of farming and harvest, and his wife, Opis, the goddess of agricultural fertility and abundance.
Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. It was a succession of exuberant festivals lasting for over a week. Attempts by several successive emperors to shorten the festival failed due to massive public protest.
Families gathered together to celebrate the spiritual renewal of the new year. People shared feasts with friends, overindulged themselves in every conceivable way, gave gifts, and decorated their homes with festive greenery. The courts closed, there were amnesties for misdeeds, business stopped and wars ceased. Slaves were waited on by their masters and everyone wore the Pileus – a cap which denotes one as a freed slave: it looks like this. Which also looks suspiciously like a Santa hat. (Also a symbol of the French Revolution and worn by the Magi in some depictions).
Although I can’t figure out why Papa Smurf wears one too…
In a particular village in Spain today, this tradition manifests itself in a festival of running through the street in red undies. I bet you didn’t see that one coming.
So to move forward again to more recent times: it’s a tradition in Germany, where Epiphany is called Three Kings Day, for groups of children dressed as the wise men to go out carolling and collecting money for charity on Twelfth Night.
And it’s also a long held German and New England tradition that before the Christmas tree is taken down, the children of the household are invited to plunder the tree – that is to find and eat any remaining edible decorations on the tree first. Of course, good parents especially hide treats in the tree in preparation for Twelfth Night. Nowadays there are also environmentally responsible Twelfth Night gatherings where you get your Christmas tree chipped and use it to mulch your garden. It is said to bring good fortune for the household in the new year; much like the older tradition of extinguishing the Yule log on Twelfth Night and turning it into kindling for the new year which was also said to bring good luck.
In Ireland, Epiphany is often called Women’s Christmas and is the day when hard working mums get to have their own day of relaxing, lunching and being spoiled after looking after everyone else on Christmas Day. Men have to take over all household duties and give the ladies the day off.
In Mexico, Three Kings Day is when children receive gifts and the night before, they leave out small gifts for the wise men and fill their shoes with hay for the camels. In the morning, gifts from the wise men will be placed in the shoes. Kids in Mexico are more likely to go and sit on the lap of one of the three kings at the local shopping mall, rather than Father Christmas’s lap.
In the Eastern church where Epiphany focuses on the Baptism of Jesus, traditions centre around water.
In the Greek Orthodox church there is the tradition of the Great Blessing of the Waters. The priest blesses the water then the cross is cast into the water and people may jump in to try to retrieve it. The person who retrieves it receives special blessing for them and their household. This photo was actually taken on the Glenelg jetty in Adelaide.
In Bulgaria a similar ritual is followed by dancing in the icy waters. If it was a toss-up between running through the street in your daks, or dancing in the water for Epiphany, we should be grateful that we celebrate Christmas in summer on this side of the world!
You might be interested to learn that Epiphany is also related to Mardi Gras festivals all over the world. Mardi Gras shares with Twelfth Night the wearing of masks and costumes, dancing, parades, parties, and the general overturning social conventions. King Cake is also eaten at Mardi Gras and it is from the early days of the New Orleans Mardi Gras that we get the now-traditional colours of King Cake – purple for justice, yellow for power, green for faith. The season of Mardi Gras begins at Epiphany and culminates in huge parades and parties which coincide with Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.
By the time of the late Renaissance, Christmas itself was a day of low-key observance that kicked off an annual twelve day festival of religious ceremony and secular celebration, culminating at Epiphany in exuberant celebrations that coincide with the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.
But between then and now, the Victorian era stamped Twelfth Night with propriety and social conformity, Coca-cola gave rise to the red & white suited Santa Claus who pretty much eclipsed the wise men, and post-war consumerism got to Christmas and made it about the buying and giving of consumer goods rather than the joys of dancing in the street, sharing hospitality with one’s community, and giving thanks for the bounty of the earth.
So now it seems the party is over by the time the Magi arrive in our Christian calendar.
The Old Testament reading for Epiphany is from Isaiah 60 which prophesies the glory of God arriving as a great light over all the nations of the world, heralded by the arrival of gifts of gold and frankincense by kingly visitors on camels from the east.
Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6 (Jill)
Notice how none of the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus mention camels but it’s universally accepted that the bearers of these gifts from the east travelled by camel. Most of the nativity scenes we’ve come to know usually feature camels.
Psalm 72 also tells us that far off kings will bring gifts to the Son of David. It’s traditional to view the story of the Magi as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy and Psalm 72 which is why crowns and camels have crept into our idea of the Magi. But that’s not the interesting bit: notice that from the Old to the New testament we gained a gift? – myrrh.
We understand that the gifts of the Magi each hold a symbolic significance for the life and destiny of Jesus Christ.
Gold was the gift reserved for royalty and symbolised Jesus’ kingship.
Frankincense was a rare and valuable aromatic perfume associated with the priesthood and symbolic of Jesus’ holy anointing. When frankincense is burned, as it was in the Temple, it gives off a sweet smelling white smoke. The smoke rising from the altar of incense represented the prayers of the people rising to God in heaven. The only use of frankincense for Jews was at the Altar of Incense in the Temple and it was reserved for the worship of God. The Magi presenting this gift to Jesus represents the fact that He was indeed divine.
But Myrrh, which specifically appears in the New Testament, has a symbolism almost directly opposite to that of the frankincense. Where frankincense symbolises Jesus’ divinity, myrrh symbolises his mortality. Its most common use was for burial. Myrrh was placed on the cloths used to wrap bodies for burial to help prevent the smell of decay following death. The Magi presented this gift to Jesus as a representation that He would one day die.
So there we have it in one little sentence in the gospels – frankincense and myrrh – immortality and mortality – divinity and humanity – God and man – right along side each other. No wonder Jesus’ contemporaries later in life didn’t know what to expect of him. No wonder Isaiah didn’t pick it.
This was the really hard thing for those living in Jesus’ time to comprehend – that the same person who fulfilled all those prophecies about a glorious new king also fulfilled the prophecies about a suffering servant. But this is the message the story of the Magi brings and is the essence of why Epiphany is so significant.
All three gifts of the Magi are necessary to convey this revelation, the epiphany of who this child in Bethlehem is and what he is destined to do.
So, getting back to the celebration of Epiphany and the notion of Twelfth Night: the Magi, Wise men, the Three Kings – whatever we choose to call them – brought their gifts to Jesus at this time in the New Year, just as the message of their story brings to us all the revelation that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, God born among us, to walk alongside us. They heralded the arrival of God’s light in the world.
So, rather than be met by us at Twelfth Night packing up the Christmas decorations, taking down the Christmas lights, thinking that the party is over, let’s leave the lights on to greet the Magi; let’s have hearts open to continue the joyful celebration of Jesus’ arrival among us. Let’s sing and dance in the streets at the blessings in our lives like people in Roman, Medieval and Renaissance times did. Let’s put hay in our shoes, and eat crazy-coloured cake, and dress up in bright colours, and splash in the water, and share food and drink with our neighbours, and even run through the streets in red undies.
Let’s keep the party going and the lights on for the arrival of the Magi and the arrival of Jesus, Light of the world. Let’s turn the fairy lights on our tree back on.
God of all time, we praise you for breaking into the darkness of this world with the glorious light of your presence. A light which made your love for the world visible in a baby born in Bethlehem – Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour. A light which guided those gift-bearing travellers from afar to find and worship the Christ-child. A light which leads us to you, now revealed in Jesus Christ.
The radiance of a star guided the travellers to the feet of Jesus where they offered their most precious gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. In that act, you revealed your glory and your love in the person of Jesus – Light of the world. As we offer our thanks for such amazing gifts to us, we recognise our responsibility to be bearers of his light and love into the areas of people’s lives darkened by pain and fear, poverty and oppression, hopelessness and sorrow.
We remember today that members of our community are experiencing that sorrow at the loss of a loved one. We ask your blessing of light, love, and consolation on Tom and all of Betty’s family and friends as they mourn her passing. We give thanks for Betty’s life and the light that she shared with the world.
Today we also remember those Australian communities that are awash in an abundance of water – too much water. We pray for strength, compassion, relief and enduring community spirit as these people begin the long process of recovering from the floods.
Strengthen us all with your Spirit to follow wherever you lead us, that we may live out your compassion and love in all we do and say.
We give you thanks God, for making your love evident since the very beginning of time when you spoke the word which replaced the darkness of chaos with life-giving light.
Holy God, as the travellers with their treasures were overwhelmed with joy on finding Jesus, so we also are overwhelmed on finding out the depth of his love for us.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
So, what’s the last thing we know of the Magi?
The last verse of their story in Matthew tells us that, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the Magi returned to their country by another route.
And this is my final thought for the day: once we have met the Christ-child, seen the light, and recognised God walking among us, we also can not go back the way we came. We are different people, choosing to walk a different path. We can’t go back again and we aren’t the same as we were before.