We’ve all heard the story of the dog that saw a large white rabbit run by him and chased after it. Along the way, other dogs, attracted by the loud barking, joined the chase not knowing what the commotion was about. The pack of dogs jumped over creeks and ran through thickets of bushes not realizing that the first dog was in hot pursuit of a rabbit. Eventually, the dogs dropped out one after another while only the dog that actually saw the rabbit continued to chase it.
This story teaches us to focus our attention on that which is essential to see and chase if we are to pursue a life of holiness. God knows that such a spiritual chase is fraught with difficulties, disappointments, even heartbreak, and requires great sacrifice. And so in His infinite wisdom, He sent us His only Son to keep us focused on His divinity manifested in three supernatural events as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (or Manifestation) of the Lord.
The Church speaks of three manifestations of Christ as divine Redeemer. The first was made to the Magi who, “finding the Child with Mary His mother, and falling down, adored Him” (Matthew 2:11). The second occurred when John baptized Christ in the Jordan River during which a voice was heard from above, saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
The Christ Child’s manifestation to the Magi is reinforced by a third supernatural intervention, namely, His first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana where He changed water into wine (John 2:1-12).
Revamp of Church Calendar
Since the changes to the Church liturgical calendar following the Second Vatican Council, the Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated on the Sunday immediately following New Year’s Day. By time-honored tradition, the Octave of Christmas includes this feast but in many Christian churches, ours included, the Christmas season itself lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after Epiphany).
In the Eastern churches, Epiphany generally holds even greater significance than Christmas day. Since the third century, Christmas was merely a part of the celebration of Three Kings. This feast was fixed on January 6th, the day Egypt would experience the winter solstice. When the tradition spread to Europe in the sixth century, the Roman Emperor Justinian even declared Epiphany a full civic holiday.
The Three Wise Men
The feast has been instituted in memory of the “three wise men from the East” who “came from afar and adored the Child,” bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which symbolize Christ’s kingship, divinity and humanity.
There is no Gospel account that tells us the exact number of the Magi. Myths and legends have placed the number at three based on the three gifts and on the early tradition that they ought to represent the three main races of humanity: Asiatic, African and Caucasian.
Rev. Bernard Strasser, author of With Christ Through the Year, mentions that St. Gregory the Great viewed these gifts from the perspective of the givers: the gift of gold represents wisdom; frankincense represents the power of prayer; and myrrh, the mortification of the flesh. Strasser says that “some little reflection should prompt us to bring all the powers of our intellect to our King, the incense of our prayers to our great High Priest, and the myrrh of our sufferings and labors to our Man-God.”
“If the Feast of the Epiphany is to be fully understood as the Church sees it,” Rev. Strasser writes, “it will have to be viewed from two aspects: that of God who manifested Himself to man, and that of man, typified in the magi, who responded with wholehearted faith and love. It is, therefore, a day of faith and grace….”
A Fourth Manifestation
There could be a fourth manifestation of Christ which could take place in the hearts of men. Every time one shares his or her blessings or fortune with the needy, Christ’s Epiphany takes place and bears lasting fruit. Whoever acts the role of the gift-giving Magi, especially to the poor, manifests the loving spirit of the Christ Child.
But do we see the Christ Child in the least of our brethren? Do we see Him in the lonely and sick elderly people in nursing homes? Do we see Him among victims of injustice? Do we see Him among the homeless and those who have no voice in society?
And we may also ask how we view gift-giving. Do we give gifts just for the sake of giving or to inflate our egos or make us feel good? Is our gift-giving merely perfunctory? Do we care more about the externals than the spirit in which we should give?
In this season of gift-giving, the Feast of the Epiphany reminds the faithful that our gifts should show our innermost sentiment. And they need not be wrapped exquisitely: metaphorically, our gift could be immaterial, like the gift of our time. The gifts the three Magi offered were not only gold, frankincense and myrrh but also their sentiments of faith and their love of the Christ Child.