Solemnity of Epiphany (January 6)
Thirteen Days of Christmas
The twelfth day of Christmas is the sixth of January; on that day, traditionally, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Three Kings, or Epiphany. It is one of the big four festivals of the Church year, and traditionally it is even more important than Christmas. It is so important that when the Latin Rite reformed the calendar, the feast was moved to the Sunday before the sixth of January. Why?
My ethnic background is Irish. Most of us in this congregation have little or no Jewish blood. Until the coming of Jesus, there was an insular character to Judaism that was not in accord with the Lord’s plan for the human race. That had to develop over the centuries before Christ–the original promise to Abraham is that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. After the Babylonian exile and the persecution by the Greeks and Romans, Judaism folded in on itself. It forgot its mission to draw all nations to right belief and right worship. The Sadducees even turned the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace. That’s why in his maturity Jesus drove the moneychangers and sacrifice merchants out of that Court.
So the Feast of the Three Kings is important because the visit of the Magi (the Bible doesn’t call them Kings) represents the outreach of Jesus, and the Church, to the Gentiles. In retrospect, the Church really didn’t succeed all that well with the Jews. The Jews were looking for a Messiah much different from Jesus. Even Herod was looking for a different Messiah. When he heard from the Magi that a new king had been born, and research showed that it would be in Bethlehem, he even ordered the massacre of all the infants and toddlers in that area. He was expecting a political Messiah who would depose Herod and run the Romans out of the Levant. The Jews, by and large, wanted the same thing. A great military ruler who would restore the political kingdom of David and Solomon.
But Isaiah and the prophets knew better. The Messiah would draw people bearing gold and incense, but the nations would come to Him because He would dispel the darkness of sin and error and death. He would be Messiah to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. They would become, as St. Paul wrote, “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
So rejoice! Don’t celebrate because your family has a tradition of giving gifts on this holy day, or because there are special foods or a rededication of your household with the signs of the three kings. Those are only important because, although salvation comes from the Jews, it is not limited to the Jews. As James Joyce famously said, the Catholic Church is “here comes everybody.” Even Irishmen like himself, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, North and South Americans and islands big and small from Australia to Pitcairn–all are called to faith in Jesus Christ and communion in the one Church. Saints, yes, but especially sinners like me, are all summoned to right thinking, right living and right worship in the Lord Jesus Christ.