Epiphany – Traditions that Deepen the Meaning of Christ’s Manifestation in the World

To celebrate the Feast of Epiphany is to follow through to the conclusion what started in the weeks of anticipation in November with the first week of Advent. The feast completes the season of Christmas by inviting us, like the Wise ones themselves, to discover for ourselves the identity of the Christ child. It’s an echo for us of our Christmas Sunday morning worship when we shared with each other what it means for us personally that we receive Jesus Christ as our Lord.

Like the Magi who anticipated, recognized, and welcomed the infant king, congregations and families can recognize and proclaim the appearance of God’s chosen one. Therefore, Epiphany is the culmination of the Christmas season, not its ending. Recovering three historical Epiphany traditions—baking a Kings’ Cake, marking a door lintel with the Magi’s blessing, and elaborating worship with lighted candles—can help God’s people interpret the Christmas season appropriately.

Just as the Magi made a careful search for the child king upon his birth,  an important component of our personal faith journey involves seeking and searching for the Lord in unlikely places. One fun way to celebrate Epiphany in the home is to prepare and eat a Kings’ Cake with friends and family. (People who have been around Old First for some years might remember that Michael R. introduced us to this tradition some years ago when he baked us King’s cake for fellowship hour on Epiphany. In this symbolic search for the baby Jesus, children and adults gather to eat a delicious cake or pastry with a toy baby hidden inside.  The person who finds the baby Jesus in his or her piece of cake is awarded the honor of providing the next year’s cake and/or hosting the celebration.

There is an important link between hospitality, (something we work hard at here at Old First),  and Epiphany: did not the Magi enjoy the hospitality of the Holy Family? Did not King Herod display a considerable lack of hospitality when he deceived and exploited his guests? As we give and receive hospitality during Christmas and Epiphany, we participate in the story of the Magi and their search for the Christ child, we celebrate the joy of Jesus’ appearance, and we find God at a surprisingly familiar place: the table.

Another tradition of Epiphany invokes the Magi’s blessing upon the household that hosts the party. Guests typically read a brief prayer that includes the biblical account of the Magi’s visit and then “chalk the door” with a series of marks. The markings include letters, numbers, and crosses in a pattern like this: 20 † C † M † B † 17. The numbers correspond to the calendar year (20 and 17, for instance, for the year 2017); the crosses stand for Christ; and the letters have a two-fold significance: C, M, and B are the initials for the traditional names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), but they are also an abbreviation of the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat, which means, “May Christ bless this house.”

The Magi, who journeyed a great distance to recognize the birth of a foreign king, recognized the blessing of peace that this king’s appearance signified. Their gifts and adoration of the new king implied their acceptance of his peaceful reign. As we reenact the Magi’s blessing, we acknowledge that Christ’s entrance into the world makes our homes and churches places of peace and hospitality.

From Advent wreaths to Christmas Eve candlelight services, candlelight is an important symbol for us.  In addition to the Kings’ Cake and Magi’s blessing, thoughtful and intentional incorporation of lighted candles in homes and churches can help us reclaim Epiphany as a celebration of the arrival of the Magi. In the Feast of Epiphany, God’s people can also learn from the Magi how to be attentive to the appearance of the light of God. The Magi observed the heavens with great care, but their efforts to find the newborn king ultimately required insights gained from a close reading of the Scriptures.

On Epiphany, then, consider depicting the night sky and Magi’s star by lighting a series of smaller candles before lighting a larger, central candle as a means of preparing to hear the Scriptures read aloud. With some planning, it can be meaningful to incorporate the Christ candle from the Advent wreath for such a purpose. In this way, the lighting of candles in worship serves as a visual representation of the Church’s need for divine assistance to read faithfully about God’s presence in our midst.

And isn’t that’s what our faith is really all about?

This post was adapted with permission of Christian Reflection, Baylor University, from an article by Rev. John & Amber Essick.