Why do you all think that Christmas is such a big deal? We can imagine this question being posed by someone who doesn’t know much about Christianity – maybe someone from China, Iran, or North Korea. But that same question would actually be posed to us by the earliest Christians themselves! To them, today’s feast of the Epiphany was much more important.
This ranking of the feast of the Epiphany over Christmas can be seen in the Church’s liturgy. If you follow the Church’s liturgical calendar, you will have noticed that the octave of Christmas is interrupted by the celebration of several feast days (St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents, and others), while the days between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord are free of any saints’ days, because the octave of the Epiphany traditionally ranked so high as to exclude any other celebrations. (Such is the case only of the Octaves of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost).
Theologically, the Epiphany is about manifestation. We use the word to describe a sudden and brilliant insight, but this is not its original meaning. Our brothers and sisters in the Christian East call it the Theophany, a visible manifestation of God to humankind.
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates three such theophanies. One of the antiphons from Vespers this evening declares: “This day we keep a holiday in honour of three wonders, this day a star led the wise men to the manger; this day at the marriage, water was made wine; this day was Christ, for our salvation, pleased to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Alleluia.”
With so much going on in today’s feast, we have to pick something to focus on. (I’m sure some of you were worried I would try to tackle everything at once! But next Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s baptism and we will hear the Gospel of the wedding feast at Cana before too long as well). Since, in the West, we focus most of all on the coming of the three Magi, let’s look at the three gifts that they bring to the Christchild.
The first gift is the gift of gold. Gold is an obvious choice for a gift – who wouldn’t want to get gold! Except, really, for a little baby or small child, who would prefer to have a toy made out of plastic! Gold proclaims Christ as king. In the ancient world, the kind of things you could wear were regulated not so much by who could afford them, but by what social class you belonged to. Gold was a sign of royalty, and so by bringing gold the Magi proclaim Christ as King.
Myrrh is an extremely fragrant spice – so it is another odd gift for a small child. Until, that is, we consider its use. Myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial. (They didn’t have embalming back then, so you would need some pretty strongly-scented spices in order to make a funeral possible.) This would make myrrh seem an even stranger gift, unless, like all of us, you already know the end of the story. The gift of myrrh is a mysterious proclamation of the reason that the Christchild has been born in the first place: to die and rise for our sins.
Frankincense is the most interesting gift of all. Essentially, it is incense, made from the gums from specific sorts of very rare trees. (10:30 — The incense being used at Mass today is pure frankincense from Somalia.) (Other Masses: The incense used at Mass frequently contains frankincense, which is still not cheap but thanks to modern harvesting and shipping methods is much more affordable than it used to be.) Incense would not seem like an obvious gift for anyone (unless you happen to know a priest who really likes to use it), but there is much more here than meets the eye.
In ancient times, frankincense was extremely expensive and sought after by kings. Its rarity and expense meant that it was dedicated for worship. Remember: We give the absolute best that we have to God in worshiping Him – no expense would be too great! Frankincense was used by the ancient Egyptians and in pagan worship of the god Baal. The Jews too used it on many occasions, but particularly on the Day of Atonement. Each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest took a censer of coals from the brazen altar (situated in the court outside the holy place). This altar was the place where animals were sacrificed, their blood constituting “atonement” for the sins of the people of Israel. Together with these burning coals on a small, shovel-like censer, the high priest took two handfuls of sweet incense beaten into fine granules. (Interestingly, just like the incense used in the Jewish temple, the incense here comes in big chunks that we grind up to create a mix of powder and bigger pieces – although we use an old coffee grinder! And although I really like incense, I have never subjected you to two whole handfuls of it at once like the Jewish priests did!)
The high priest passed through the holy place beyond the veil into the holy of holies. There, he put the incense upon the flaming coals “before Jehovah, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy-seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Leviticus 16:13). The mercy-seat was the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, and the “testimony” refers to the tables of stone within the ark, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16).
These details of the Jewish ceremonial law would have been well known to Mary and Joseph (remember, Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, was a member of the priestly caste and carried out these religious functions). So what an odd gift! Why would they give this incense to the Child Jesus? Was it just because it was of great value, and Mary and Joseph could sell it?
No. Mary and Joseph would have seen these connections and realized that the Magi gave the infant Jesus frankincense for two reasons:
First, they give frankincense to Jesus just as they gave it to their pagan idols: In honor of a god. The gift of frankincense declares that the child in the manger is not just a King (already a strange enough thing to believe!) but that He is God Himself, worthy of the highest form of earthly praise in divine worship.
Second, the Magi give the Christchild frankincense because He is Himself the great high priest who in his very person will supersede the Jewish rites of worship. Frankincense, remember, was a part of the Jewish ritual of atonement, by which, year after year, the high priest alone entered into the holy of holies to offer the blood of lambs and goats along with fragrant incense to cover up the smell of the gore.
By His passion, death, and resurrection – foretold by the gift of myrrh –Christ will offer a sacrifice far greater even than the costliest of incense. His sacrifice will go well beyond the yearly atonement of the Jewish high priests: On the Cross, He will win for us not just atonement, but forgiveness, once and for all.
This is why the Epiphany is so important: because it shows us that Christmas is not just a touching story. It is the proclamation of the core of the Gospel: that this Child in the manger will suffer, die, and rise from the dead in atonement for our sins. The gift of frankincense shows the Christchild to be the unique and true high priest: the one who stands between God and man in a way that no other priest ever did or ever will, because He Himself is both fully God and fully man.
The celebration of the solemnity of the Epiphany pushes us to go beyond sentimentality to a truly sacramental celebration of the joy of Christmas, which is now crescendoing into a close with the Epiphany and its octave, which will culminate in the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday.
Epiphany reminds us that that Christ’s high priesthood is not just something from the past, but that it is present among us through sacrament. The redemption and forgiveness of sins foretold by the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Magi are made present and offered to us each and every time that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated.
While we think of the word “epiphany” as a sudden realization of a great idea, its original meaning is a manifestation of God. The three manifestations of Jesus – to the Magi, at His baptism, and at the wedding feast of Cana – are not the end of the story. He continues to manifest Himself to us. At this Mass, we will be invited to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world as our redemption is brought about in our midst through the renewal of the Holy Sacrifice foretold by the mysterious gifts of the Magi. Let us be mindful that the same Lord whom they hailed as the great High Priest is present in our midst today, sharing with us gifts far greater yet: His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Epiphany of the Lord, A.D. MMXIX