Today is Epiphany, the day Christians celebrate the Magi visiting the baby Jesus. In modern times we often mark it as a day of taking down the Christmas tree, or perhaps joining figurines of the three wise men to our nativity scenes. In earlier times, however, Epiphany was a very significant and spiritually packed day in the church calendar. But why? What can we take from this “12th Day of Christmas” and what might it have to do with a wedding?
Matthew’s gospel tells us that, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”
Being led by a star, they came to where the baby Jesus was and “bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matt 2:1-2, 11).
The word "epiphany" comes from the Greek epiphainen meaning “to reveal” or “make known.” When the Magi worship the baby Jesus, his identity is revealed to the Gentiles.
But this isn’t the only event revealing Christ’s divinity that was historically celebrated on 6 January. Originally, the church celebrated four different events at Epiphany:
1) the Baptism of the Lord,
2) Christ’s first miracle at the wedding of Cana,
3) the Nativity of Christ,
4) and the visitation of the Magi.
That’s right, the birth of Christ used to be celebrated today, on January 6th, but was separated out and moved to December 25th sometime in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. The church also came to celebrate Jesus’ baptism and first miracle on different days, which leaves the visitation of the Magi as the main focus of modern Epiphany observances.
It’s interesting, though, to consider the possible relationship between the Magi and the wedding at Cana. The link has to do with the famous gifts they were bearing from afar.
In biblical times, these items were standard gifts with which to honour a king. Gold, a precious metal, is often held to symbolise Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense, an aromatic oil used in incense, is believed to have represented his divinity. Myrrh, a resin used in the ancient world in perfumes and anointing oils—and for embalming mummies—is seen to foretell Jesus’ death.
These valuable gifts are also described in Isaiah 60 as items that would be returned to Jerusalem during her anticipated restoration. Nebuchadnezzar plundered the city and carried off Jerusalem’s treasuries to Babylon in 587 B.C. When the Magi bring these items back to Jerusalem and ultimately to the feet of the baby Jesus, we can interpret this as the beginning of the long-awaited restoration of which Isaiah spoke!
But gold, frankincense and myrrh were also items associated with grooms in biblical times. When a typical groom would go to claim his bride, he would wear a crown of gold on his head (if he could afford it), and his wedding garment would be sprinkled with frankincense and myrrh. Thus, when the three wise men present the baby Jesus with these gifts, can we also see within them a symbol of Jesus as the anticipated groom who would unite with his people in a certain kind of marriage?
In the Old Testament, Yahweh described his relationship with Israel in marital terms; Isaiah proclaimed, “For your Maker is your husband—the LORD Almighty is his name” (Isaiah 54:5). Interestingly, Jesus refers to himself as “the bridegroom” (Mark 2:19) and seems to take on this identity in his very first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). Providing wine for the wedding guests was the responsibility of a Jewish groom. The fact that the church originally celebrated this miracle on Epiphany—the day it commemorated the revelation of Jesus’ identity to the world—should not be lost on us.
Next month, I’ll be launching a new book (published by Connor Court) that dives deeper into how ancient Jewish betrothal and wedding imagery illumines the biblical story. My hope is that it points us to the identity of the Christmas baby that we celebrate during this entire season—the King who would restore the City of David, the Groom who would unite himself to the church, the Son of God who is Saviour of the World!
Happy Epiphany from the Millis Institute.