The feast of the Epiphany, as we presently understand it—the adoration of the Magi—is found very early in Gaul, where it probably predates Christmas. The Council of Saragossa in 380 decreed a three-week fast before Epiphany. The feast existed in North Africa in the time of Augustine. Several of Leo the Great's sermons witness to the feast's observance in Rome. The principal object in the Roman liturgy is the adoration of the Magi.
However, the feast of the Epiphany most certainly originated in the East, where it is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. It may have been assigned its date in reference to a pagan feast. In the Egyptian calendar, the winter solstice and the feast of the Sun-god were observed on January 6. On the previous night, pagans of Alexandria commemorated the birth of their god Aeon, supposedly born of a virgin. It was also believed that the waters of rivers, especially the Nile, acquired miraculous powers and even turned into wine on this night.
This may be a partial explanation, why it is difficult to circumscribe the original object of this feast in the East. By the fourth century Epiphany could embrace the birth of Christ, His baptism, the adoration of the Magi, and the miracle at Cana. According to some liturgists (cf. C. Mohrmann), Epiphany was an idea feast (as opposed to an event feast) from the beginning and admitted any manifestation of the divine power of Christ. As a matter of fact, in classical Greek epiphany and theophany designate the manifestation of a divinity and, later, important events in the life of a king. Epiphany is first used in a Christian sense by St. Paul for both the first and the final comings of Christ (Ti 2.11,13). The word epiphany was soon used to describe the miracles of Christ as manifestations of divine power.
St. John Chrysostom explains the eastern meaning of Epiphany with these words: "We give the name Epiphany to the Lord's baptism because he was not made manifest to all when he was born, but only when he was baptized, for until that time he was unknown to the people at large." In similar fashion, St. Jerome, drawing upon his Palestine experience, declares that the idea of showing forth (Epiphany) belonged not to the birth in the flesh, for then he was hidden and not revealed, but rather to the baptism in the Jordan, when the heavens were opened upon Christ.
According to oriental ideas it was through the divine pronouncement "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased," that the Savior was first manifested to the great world of unbelievers. The western tradition of this feast lies more along the line of what we are used to call fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). There is no overwhelming Epiphany or divine manifestation on the path of the Magi. The Magi were wise men who saw the star and its unusual brightness. Steadfast in the resolution of following the divine call and fearless of danger, they traveled, inquired, explored, and let themselves be conducted by the star to the place where they were to see and worship their Savior. But again, no divine pronouncement thundering from open skies, only a poor babe in a manger. As St. Leo the Great put it, "When a star had conducted them to worship Jesus, they did not find him commanding devils or raising the dead or restoring sight to the blind or speech to the dumb, or employed in any divine action; but a silent babe, dependent upon a mother's care, giving no sign of power but exhibiting a miracle of humility."
Eastern theology has always been eschatological in thrust, eager and anxious to show the unabridged Godhead in all its splendor and majesty, beyond and in spite of its manifestation in human condition and according to human categories. Western theology in turn develops according to a different religious sensitivity: it is more incarnational, amazed by and preoccupied with the miracle of humility, God's being in the flesh and becoming one of us. The spirituality of the East is a spirituality of vision, based on "ta phota" (what is visible) or illumination, the Jordan experience; the spirituality of the West is the spirituality of journey, originating in God's call and transformative power, it is the "Magi-experience."
Yet, both traditions are but two different and complementary facets of the same reality, just as ear and eye are dependent on and complement each other. In a similar way, the Feast of the Epiphany manifests the comprehensive reality of God's encounter with humanity: it shows not only God's self-giving presence in the miracle of humility, but also his authoritative self-disclosure at the baptism of Christ. Epiphany manifests not only God's gratuitous and hidden presence to us, it also reminds us of our personal and active role in this encounter with God, made explicit through the acts and gestures of the Magi.
The Magi offer to Jesus as a token of homage the richest products their countries afforded - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, as an acknowledgment of Christ's regal power; incense, as a confession of his Godhead; and myrrh, as a testimony that he has become man for the redemption of the world. But even more important than gold, frankincense and myrrh were the dispositions the Magi cherished in their souls: their fervent charity, signified by gold; their devotion, figured by frankincense; and their unreserved sacrifice of themselves, represented by myrrh.
In the Middle Ages it was customary on this day (January 6) to bless homes with the newly-blessed water, and with incense. Later the initials of the names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar) were written with blessed chalk on or above the doors of homes. CMB stands also for Christus, Manisionem, Benedocal (May Christ bless this home). May these initials be carved on the doors to our spiritual homes, too, as a reminder, that each one of us is called upon by God's Epiphany to the world to assume a threefold role: that of the child, the disciple and the steward.
– Johann Roten
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