The Spirituality of the Epiphany

Why the Epiphany?

epiphanyicon“Epiphany is both an event and a symbol. The event is described in detail by the Evangelist [St. Matthew]. The symbolic meaning, however, was gradually discovered as the Church reflected more and more on the event and celebrated it liturgically. After 2,000 years, wherever Epiphany is celebrated, the Ecclesial Community draws from this precious liturgical and spiritual tradition ever new points for reflection.” (Pope John Paul II, 6 January, 2000)

The full name of Miles Jesu is Sons and Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady of the Epiphany. The Epiphany is a feast that we in Miles Jesu pay a lot of attention to: it’s amazingly full of symbolism and dogma.

Gifts, the gifts of the Three Kings, are an important element of the Epiphany. But the Epiphany is bursting with treasures that surpass the Magi’s coffers of gold, incense, and myrrh. Here are just some of the riches of the Epiphany from Sacred Scripture, the Liturgy of the Church, saints, and scholars…

The Epiphany is the Original, Most Ancient Solemnity of the Christmas Season, Celebrated Since the Second Century Christmas, on the other hand, has been celebrated as a separate feast only since the fourth century. Epiphany (a transliteration of the Greek word for “manifestation”) is a threefold commemoration of the first manifestations of Jesus: at His birth when He is revered by angels and men, at His baptism in the Jordan when the voice from heaven identifies Him as The Son (cf. Mt. 3:16,17, Mk. 1:9-11, Lk. 3:21,22), and at the “first of the signs that Jesus worked, at [the marriage feast at] Cana in Galilee; and He manifested His glory.” (cf. Jn. 2:11) We tend to especially use the word “Epiphany” for the first of these mysteries—that unexpected visit of three noble but mysterious figures from far-off pagan lands.

The Epiphany is the Feast for Adoring Jesus

“The Epiphany is a season especially set apart for adoring the glory of Christ. The word may be taken to mean the manifestation of His glory, and leads us to the contemplation of Him as a King upon His throne in the midst of His courts, with His servants around Him; and His guards in attendance. At Christmas we commemorate His grace; and in Lent His temptation; and on Good Friday His sufferings and death; and on Easter Day His victory; and on [Ascension] Thursday His return to the Father; and in Advent we anticipate His second coming. And in all of these seasons He does something, or suffers something; but in the Epiphany and the weeks after it, we celebrate Him, not as on His field of battle; or in His solitary retreat, but as an august and glorious King; we view Him as the Object of our worship.” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, Sermon No. 6 on the Season of the Epiphany)

The Epiphany Reveals the True (Dual) Nature of Jesus

In the Gospel Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The pilgrim visitors of His infancy testify to the true answer with their gifts. They bring Him gold, a gift customary for a king. They bring Him myrrh, used in those times for preparing the dead for burial. And they bring Him incense, which both Jews and gentiles burned as a kind of holocaust offering to the deity. “In a word they scrupulously set about their duty and provide themselves with such gifts that in worshipping the One they may at the same time show their belief in His threefold function: with gold they honor the Person of a King, with myrrh that of Man, with incense that of God.” (St. Leo the Great)

The Epiphany Reveals the Universality of Christ’s Salvation

“The Magi represent the peoples of the whole earth who, in the light of the Lord’s birth, set out on the way leading to Jesus and, in a certain sense, are the first to receive that salvation inaugurated by the Savior’s birth and brought to fulfillment in the paschal mystery of His death and resurrection. When they reached Bethlehem, the Magi adored the divine Child and offered Him symbolic gifts, becoming forerunners of the peoples and nations which down the centuries never cease to seek and meet Christ.” (Sermon of Pope John Paul II, Epiphany 1996)

Thirty years before the beginning of His public ministry, the Savior reaches out to the humanity among whom He is newly arrived. He calls the Jewish shepherds through an angel. In the Temple He opens the eyes of Simeon and Anna at His presentation, allowing the Spirit to reveal something special to them. But He also sends an extraordinary sign to gentiles living far away. A star somehow inspires them to believe in His coming, to go to greet and honor Him.

“The adoring Magi represent the heathen world, and offer the choicest gifts of the gentiles to the Lord Whom they adore.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitas, Book IV)

“Epiphany, dearly beloved, gives us the continuance of joy, that the force of our exultation and the fervor of our faith may not grow cool, in the midst of neighboring and kindred mysteries. For it concerns all men’s salvation, that the infancy of the Mediator between God and men was already manifested to the whole world, while He was still detained in the tiny town. He was unwilling that the early days of His birth should be concealed within the narrow limits of His mother’s home but desired to be soon recognized by all, seeing that he deigned to be born for all.” (St. Leo the Great)

He is the glory of Israel, and the light for the gentiles. His salvation is for all.

The Epiphany Reveals the Call to Serve the Lord Through Evangelization

“The Church’s missionary activity, through its many stages down the centuries, finds its starting point and universal scope in the feast of the Epiphany.” (Pope John Paul II, Homily of 6 January, 1997).

“God decreed that all nations should be saved in Christ. Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God’s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles. Let us give thanks to the merciful God, ‘who has made us worthy,’ in the words of the Apostle, ‘to share the position of the saints in light; who has rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of this beloved Son.’ This came to be fulfilled, as we know, from the time when the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.” (from a sermon by Saint Leo the Great)

The Epiphany Reveals Mary’s Role in Our Search for Jesus

“And entering the house, they found the Child with Mary His mother, and falling down they worshiped Him.” (Mt. 2:11) Just as the very first to learn of Jesus’ presence on earth—St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and the unborn St. John the Baptist—came to know Him through Mary, so the Magi find Him with His mother. And so shall we.

“On the Epiphany, when she celebrates the universal call to salvation, the Church contemplates the Blessed Virgin, the true Seat of Wisdom and the true Mother of the King, who presents to the Wise Men, for their adoration, the Redeemer of all peoples.” (cf. Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI)

There is a strong connection between the prophecy of Simeon, the role of the Magi, and Mary’s vocation to actively participate in the passion of Her Son. Simeon warns the young mother of Jesus’ future sufferings and the controversy that will surround Him, and foretells her own suffering. The Magi come, but their visit necessitates the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to protect baby Jesus from Herod’s murderous soldiers. Simeon’s prediction is the First Sorrow of Our Lady; the flight into Egypt (with the accompanying innocent bloodshed of the children of Bethlehem and the first attack upon the Savior) is known as her Second Sorrow.

The Epiphany Reveals the Catholicity of the Church

“On the day of His birth, Our Lord was manifested to shepherds roused by an angel, and on that day too through the appearance of a star He was announced to Magi in the distant East, but it was on this day that he was adored by the Magi. Therefore the whole Church of the Gentiles has adopted this day as a feast worthy of most devout celebration, for who were the Magi but the first-fruits of the Gentiles? The shepherds were the Israelites, the Magi, Gentiles. The one group came from nearby; the other, from afar. Both, however, were united in [Christ] the cornerstone.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 202)

The shepherds were poor and uneducated, simple laborers. The Magi were scholars with the time and the money to make a long trip (legend has it that they were away from home for two years!) to an unknown person in a foreign country, bringing him costly gifts, and paying a courtesy call to the king of the region, Herod, along the way. The shepherds were the bottom class of Jesus’ own society and culture; the Magi were of the highest class of an alien civilization. It’s interesting to picture those wealthy travelers appearing at the door of a humble household in Bethlehem, that little town in an insignificant province — Isreal — of the Roman Empire. What language could guests and hosts have communicated in? Possibly Greek? But the language of faith, charity and humility was that which was most clearly spoken, both at the shepherds’ visit and at the Magi’s. Magi unite with shepherds in paying a reverential, life-changing visit to the newborn King of them all.

The Epiphany Reveals a Reason for Joy

As Pope John Paul II said at the conclusion of his homily for Epiphany in the year 2000: “Today’s liturgy urges us to be joyful. There is a reason for this: the light that shone from the Christmas star to lead the Magi from the East to Bethlehem continues to guide all the peoples and nations of the world on the same journey. Let us give thanks for the men and women who have made this journey during the past 2,000 years. Let us praise Christ, Lumen Gentium [Light of the Nations], who guided them and continues to guide the nations down the path of history! To Him, the Lord of time, God from God, Light from Light, we confidently address our prayer. May His star, the Epiphany star, continually shine in our hearts, showing to individuals and nations the way of truth, love and peace in the third millennium. Amen.”

Read more about the Eastern and Western Epiphany traditions here

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