Sometimes the feast of Epiphany can get lost in the shuffle of un-decorating, family get-togethers, holiday parties, and kids going back to school. Yet Epiphany is such an important feast! It is another peak in the mountain range of high feast days of the Christmas season, and an important part of our Catholic heritage; not just in the great mystery it represents, but also in the traditions which have formed around it.
Epiphany used to be a feast as big, or bigger than Christmas—in a number of cultures, it is still the day that Christmas is celebrated and gifts exchanged. For my family, Epiphany is a “little Christmas” in many ways. In the morning, we’ll frequently come down to find that the Wise Men have left gifts for us. Then the final figures arrive at the nativity scene, as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar approach the Christ Child (with camels, of course.) They have been travelling, or hiding in drawers, until the appointed time. The mystery is completed and the fullness of Christ’s identity is revealed in these kings, unknown characters of the drama of salvation.
I’ve always loved the symbolism of the Three Kings’ gifts, and the aspects of the Incarnation’s reality that they display. Christ comes to us as God, as man, and as King, to fulfill all the prophecies of the Old Covenant. And so these visitors from the Orient bring frankincense to be offered in worship to God; myrrh to embalm the man; and gold to crown the King. The Wise Men, representing every nation and culture of humanity from the beginning of the world to the end, bring the gifts of mankind to its Savior.
On the feast, there are traditional blessings for each of the three gifts, as well as a blessing of holy water and a blessing of chalk. This last is used to mark the lintels of doors with a special blessing by the father of the family: this year’s would be +20+C+M+B+14+, invoking the intercession of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Another translation of the initials is Christus mansionem benedicat, “Christ bless the house”. As a college student, I like to take a piece of blessed chalk back to school after Christmas break, and mark the lintel of my dorm room. After all, it is my home away from home, and I like to bring that bit of tradition with me.
Our parish, which was begun by Italian immigrants, has another custom. On the feast day, you see a little statue of a woman who looks a bit like an old witch. She’s withered and leaning over a broom in a peasant’s dress and shawl. Meet La Befana! The story goes that La Befana was sweeping her house when the Three Kings stopped to ask for directions on their way. Being a good housekeeper, she offered them shelter, but when the men invited her to come with them she refused, being too busy with her housework. Later she realized the mistake she had made, and so she left, following her erstwhile visitors. Now she brings gifts to every child, hoping in one of them to find the Christ Child whom she seeks.
One more tradition that my family has is one that we borrow from a number of religious orders. We incorporate it into our annual party, on the Sunday nearest Epiphany, but it’s properly done on Epiphany itself. My mother prepares a number of envelopes, each containing a holy card of a saint and a slip of paper with a particular virtue. As guests leave, they take an envelope at random and receive a particular patron for the year and a virtue to foster that year. It’s a fun tradition, especially when the virtue just happens to hit that trouble spot in your spiritual life!
Do you ever wonder what went through each man’s head as he knelt before the Child? T.S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, below, captures the scene—read it through carefully if you get the chance. We should not forget the role that these noble wise men had in our salvation. Let us ask them for a share in their wisdom and their intercession during the Christmas season, that we make of it a fruitful and joyous time.
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.