It appears that the feast of the Epiphany, which was held in the East and in certain Western Churches before it was observed in Rome, was originally a celebration of the nativity. For those churches where it was observed, January 6 was the equivalent of Christmas (December 25) in the Roman Church. The feast was first celebrated in Rome in the second part of the sixth century, and it later evolved into the festival’s complement and, in a sense, its crown.
Epiphany translates to manifestation. The manifestation of our Lord to the entire world is what the Church commemorates now; after being revealed to the Bethlehem shepherds, He is revealed to the Magi who have journeyed from the East to adore Him. The Magi represent the first fruits of the Gentiles, according to Christian legend. All the Earth’s Peoples follow in their trail and the Epiphany, therefore, confirms the salvation of all peoples. St. Leo makes this point brilliantly in a sermon read at Matins, where he illustrates how the Magi’s devotion marks the birth of the Christian faith at a time when the vast majority of the pagan population is travelling to follow the star that calls it to seek its Saviour.
That is also the explanation behind the great prophecy from Isaias that is read during the first nocturn at Matins and the Epistle of the Mass according to the liturgy. The Church returns to the idea of universal redemption when she sings the antiphon to the Magnificat at 2nd Vespers, interpreting the words to describe her own union with Christ as symbolised by the wedding feast at Cana and her children’s baptism as foreshadowed by Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. Epiphany was once an alternative day for formal baptisms.
Again, from another source – The solemnity of the Epiphany is observed on January 6 or, if the episcopal conference so decides, on a Sunday between January 2 and January 8., The child Messiah is made known as the world’s light. The adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the wedding feast at Cana are three mysteries that are included in this solemnity, as the antiphon for the Magnificat at Second Vespers reminds us. Extra candles and/or lamps may be placed around the sanctuary and in other parts of the church to honour Christ revealed as the Light of the Gentiles (Ceremonial of Bishops) It is usual to substitute the three Magi and their gifts for the shepherds’ representations at the crib. —Msgr. Peter J. Elliott, author of Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, Ignatius Press.]
Matthew 2:1–12 is the source of the feast’s gospel. The main characters of today’s Epiphany celebration are the Magi. They were pagan people who had no knowledge of the Jewish people’s true God. But that real God made known to them that the Jewish King he had prophesied had indeed come. A prince was born as foretold. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah they expected, of course, to find the city and the entire country in jubilation. Instead, they found suspicion and hatred in the reigning king—a hatred which shortly turned to murder The religious leaders were knowledgeable about their past history but completely uninterested in the present and the future. These officials must have understood that the Magi were adamant about the truth revealed to them since they would not have travelled so far on a “fool’s errand.” They also knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Despite this, they never considered accompanying the Magi to Bethlehem. These were the same officials that, despite his miracles, refused to accept his claim that he was not only the promised Messiah but also the real Son of God. These were men who rejected him because he had mercy on sinners and spoke of a future life. What they wanted from their Messiah was political power and earthly freedom and prosperity. Like Herod, they ended with murder—the crucifixion of the “King of the Jews.” The mediocre leaders of God’s Chosen People were not much worse than the pagan king. Let us choose to make the Magi our models, to follow them to Bethlehem and offer Christ all that we have and are.
—Adapted from The Sunday Readings by Fr. Kevin O’Sullivan, O.F.M.
Paraphrased www.catholicculture.org. (n.d.). The Epiphany of the Lord – January 08, 2023 – Liturgical Calendar. [online] Available at: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2023-01-08 [Accessed 4 Jan. 2023].
Image from Wikipedia
public (1902). Journey of the Magi. [JEPG] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7b/Journey_of_the_Magi.jpg [Accessed 4 Jan. 2023].