Today is Epiphany, or Twelfth Night if you are of European extraction. But what is that exactly?
Well, Epiphany was when the wise men (or the Magi if you like) visited the nativity of Jesus Christ. They were a little bit after the big event with the shepherds and the angels and all that hoo-hah, and they had arrived after doing a little detour to Herod’s palace on the way. I thought they were supposed to be “wise” men, but surely, tipping off the King that there was a new king born in his land probably wasn’t the best thing to do. After all, it meant Joseph and Mary had to do a run for Egypt soon after Jesus was born or else he would have been slaughtered in the widespread massacre Herod ordered after their news.
Now I don’t now for sure that the wise men arrived twelve days after Jesus’ birth, or if that is something that is a convenient number for us to remember, (if you do know, please leave me a comment below) but it’s where we get the “12 Days of Christmas” idea from. Not the 12 days before Christmas, but the 12 days afterwards. We all know the song don’t we? “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…” and so on. There are twelve verses to the song and each one denotes a different gift given on each consecutive day. There are parallels between the gifts in the song and Biblical references, such as the partridge in the pear tree is supposed to represent Christ himself, the four calling birds are the four gospels, the 12 lords a-leaping are the disciples and so on. You get the idea.
So what is it about Christmas and gifts? Obviously, the gift of light and life we receive in Jesus Christ, but how do we arrive at the gift-giving to each other? The song is one example, and throughout the world different cultures have different customs in gift-giving at Christmas time. In the UK we give gifts on Christmas Day (25th December), but in many parts of Europe gifts are exchanged on the 24th December which is Christmas Eve. The Russian Orthodox people celebrate Christmas on 7th January and have several gift-giving exchanges throughout winter.
The first gifts to be exchanged at Christmas surely had to be by the wise men. Between them they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Each of these gifts was highly symbolic and foreshadowed Christ’s life and death: gold is a precious metal, suitable gift for a king; myrrh is an anointing oil and frankincense is a perfume, again suitable for a king. They were pretty standard gifts for ordinary kings, but Jesus, as we know, wasn’t an ordinary anything let alone an ordinary king.
So, epiphany. It has come to mean an insight, or a sudden illumination into a problematic situation or issue and as far as I can see, the first epiphany was just that too. Jesus was sent as the light in the darkness and the wise me followed a bright star to find him. They might have been a little late to the party, but we shouldn’t be too hard on them because that party is still going on more than 2000 years later.
Just a moment of levity for you. I saw this cartoon on my Facebook feed this morning and had to share it with you. Hope it makes you smile as much as I did.