Epiphany, January 6, is the “Christmas of the Gentiles,” a feast which popularly outranks Christmas in certain Catholic nations and predated it on the Church’s calendar. (Liturgically, in fact, it outranked Christmas until its octave was sadly dropped in 1955). In Latin America and Europe gifts and sweets were given to children on this day not December 25. Nor were the presents given out by Santa Claus but, rather, by the three kings.
Traditionally, we remain in Epiphanytide until the feast of Candlemas, February 2.
Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” actually celebrates three mysteries of Our Lord’s life — in Roman liturgical order, they are: the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana. Each of these events is a public manifestation Christ to the world. The principal one of these mysteries commemorated in the Roman Rite is the visit of the Magi, the first gentiles to respond to the light of God’s revelation and follow His star. In the Eastern Rites, however, the Baptism of Christ is considered the greater Epiphany.
The Roman Church summarizes these three mysteries thusly in her liturgy for the Epiphany: “We celebrate a holy day adorned with three mysteries: this day the star led the Magi to the manger; this day wine was made from water at the wedding; this day Christ willed to be baptized in the Jordan by John in order to save us, alleluia” (Antiphon for the Magnificat, Second Vespers).
“Every Mystery of Christ,” wrote Blessed Abbot Marmion, “not only constitutes an historical fact that has occurred in time, but also contains its own special grace upon which souls ought to be nourished so as to live by it.”
The grace of Christmas is the grace of divine adoption, of spiritual childhood. It is the birth of Christ in our souls, made possible by the birth in time of Him who is eternally generated in the bosom of the Father. The grace of the Epiphany makes explicit what is implicit in Christmas. It proclaims to the nations what has occurred in Bethlehem, and what that divine occurrence has made possible, namely, the union of the Heavenly Bridegroom with His Bride, the Catholic Church, which, being catholic will embrace both Jews and Gentiles.
Just as we speak of the three births at Christmas (the Word’s birth in eternity, Jesus’ birth of Mary, and the birth of Christ in our souls by faith and baptism) we speak of a trinity of mysteries in the Epiphany. The first was a manifestation of the Savior of the world to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi. The second was a manifestation, via the descent of the Holy Ghost and the Voice of God the Father, of the Holy Trinity, and of Christ’s Divine Sonship. It was also a revelation of the means by which men might be united to God, as the sacrament of Baptism was instituted on this occasion. The third was a manifestation of Christ’s power in a public way, the miracle at Cana being the “beginning of miracles” that “manifested his glory” (John 2:11). It showed forth not only Christ’s power, but also His blessing of holy matrimony, which is itself a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church.
Being made living members of Christ’s Body, the Church, the faithful are assimilated into this great nuptial union with God. Harkening back to the mystery of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, Saint John the Baptist was the “Best Man” at Christ’s wedding with the Church. In a reference to Jewish marriage customs, he tells us as much when he describes himself as the “friend of the bridegroom,” who rejoices at the voice of the bridegroom singing to his spouse (John 3:29).
In the antiphon for the Benedictus in the feast’s office of Lauds the nuptial theme is woven into these three Mysteries: “Today the Church hath been joined to her heavenly Spouse, for Christ hath washed away her sins in the Jordan; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal nuptials, and the guests are gladdened with wine made from water, alleluia” (Antiphon for the Benedictus, Lauds).
This is none other than “the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God” (Eph. 3:9), namely, “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and co-partners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). It is the expression of the Father’s will to “recapitulate all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10).
This union of Jew and Gentile was prophesied by Isaias, as we read it in the epistle for the feast: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee… [A]nd His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about and see: all these are gathered together: they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. … [T]he strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee… bringing gold and frankincense and showing forth their praise to the Lord.”
Let us all strive to imitate the holy travelers foreseen by Isaias, especially taking note of how the “wise men” found Our Lord: “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him: and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11). If we would be wise and find Jesus, we must seek Him where he is, “with Mary his mother,” and there offer Him our gifts.
At the Wedding Feast at Cana, Mary has another intercessory role: She it is who presents the couple’s dilemma to Jesus and who instructs the servants at the feast to follow all Our Lord’s directives. Having first “manifested” Him to the world as an infant, she now assists Him in ushering in His public life with this first sign. “They have no wine” she says to Her Son, when we need the sweet inebriation of grace; “Do whatever He tells you,” she tell us, that we might partake of that life-giving draught.