‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Edward Burne-Jones (1904). (Photo: Wikipedia)
After the celebration of Christ’s birth and the Solemnity of Mary on New Year’s Day, the Christian world celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany every Jan. 6. This year it is being celebrated today, on the first Sunday after the New Year, to give many more people the chance to celebrate it than on a weekday.
When I was a child, my parents used to tell me that this day is the end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, we take down our Christmas tree and pack our Christmas decorations after the Epiphany. In my hometown, this is the day when the image of the Baby Jesus is passed around every house to bless us and to be kissed.
This practice could have originated from these words in the Gospel: “And entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary, His Mother and falling down, they adored him.” A Christian feast, the day is a celebration of the theophany or the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Every year, this day comes and goes, but in comparison with the festive Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is getting less attention. What is the significance of this day? Epiphany means the revelation or manifestation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to a couple of friends from the Redemptorist and Carmelite communities.
Rev. Father Ramon Fruto of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer beautifully recalled that his late mother Epifania, fondly known as Panyang, was born on Jan. 6. “My mother will celebrate her birthday in heaven, a perpetual holiday,” he said.
He added: “The Three Kings’ story is used by Matthew to convey a lesson for the Jews of Jesus’ time, which remains relevant to the people of our time. These famous visitors to Bethlehem in the story were not kings and were not three. The Matthew Gospel does not mention three and kings.
“They were those days of the Magi [the plural of ‘magus,’ the root of the word ‘magician’]. In history, there were astrologers who studied the movement of the stars and saw meanings in them. In this case, they indicated the rising of a mighty ruler. Hearing of that, Herod was so disturbed. The story portrays these men coming from the east, so for the pious Jews they were Gentiles or Pagans. Yet, with all their lack of Jewish faith and with all the distance and the hazards of travel, they just followed the guidance of the star to where Jesus was and paid him homage.
“The pious, religious Jews, blessed with the Old Testament’s prophesies on the coming of a redeemer, failed to see the redeemer in their own neighborhood and to shed their prejudices about how that redeemer should appear. Later in his preaching, Jesus would often refer to the inclusion in his kingdom of those whom pious religious and prestigious Jews would exclude from God’s kingdom.”
Asked about the relevance of the story to our times, Father Fruto quoted Matthew 8:11-12 that says: “Many will come from the east and the west and will find a place and the banquet of the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while the natural heirs of the kingdom will be driven out into the dark.”
Those that “religious” Christians might consider not very religious might gain entrance to the kingdom ahead of those who are so devout yet have little regard for justice and solidarity with the poor and victims of exploitation and injustice. This is the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus and the redeemer not only of the Jews but of all people. The pious Jews are relegated to the periphery of the kingdom.
When asked about the Three Kings, Father Fruto explained that liturgists have transplanted into the liturgy the reference to Psalm 72:10, which says, “The kings of Tashis and the Isles shall offer gifts” and from Isaiah 60:30, 8, which says, “Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your radiance. Camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah. And all shall come from Sheba bringing gold and frankincense.” The liturgists added myrrh, a bitter herb that suggests the bitter Passion of Jesus the Redeemer.
Father Christian Buenafe, the Carmelite executive director of the Institute of Spirituality in Asia, said the core message of the Epiphany is that God manifests his saving grace for all and not only for a selected few.
“This year marks 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. It is good to reflect and ask ourselves, what do we manifest as baptized believers and church workers. Like Christ, we have to become beacons of light in the midst of the pandemic, violence, poverty, repression and tyranny. Are we channels of hope and agents of transformation in the world? This is an invitation for us Filipino Christians to seriously concretize our faith in our present time. We have to be beacons of light,” Father Buenafe said.
Listening to the stories of these men of the cloth makes me realize that the Epiphany is nothing without a quest — a quest for the Lord made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, whose love for the poor, the deprived, the oppressed, the alienated and the struggling takes supremacy over any external pious acts. Imitating Christ will bring us closer to our treasured aspiration for the realization of God’s kingdom here on Earth.
As this biggest Christian country in Asia marks the 500th anniversary of its Christianity in the context of the pandemic that continues to plague humanity, we need more than ever to be grounded by the lessons of the Epiphany — love for and solidarity with God’s little ones.
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.