Visitors from the East emphasize mission to all

By: By Father Claude Peifer, OSB

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Jan. 6

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,10-11,12-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

The name “Epiphany” comes from the Greek term epiphaneia, which means manifestation. Its Greek name already indicates that the feast is of eastern origin; it is in fact the eastern equivalent of our western feast of Christmas, and it was celebrated on Jan. 6.

Already at a fairly early date the western Church adopted it in addition to its own celebration on Dec. 25; the period between the two feasts constitutes the “12 days of Christmas.” Today in the United States, however, we observe Epiphany rather on the second Sunday after Christmas, in order to facilitate the attendance of the faithful.

Whereas the western Church concentrated upon the historical birth of Jesus as narrated in the infancy Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the eastern Church was more concerned with the inner meaning of the feast, that is, the mystery of God’s appearing in human form. It was seen that the divinity of Jesus had been manifested in a particular way in certain episodes of his earthly life. The events especially singled out were his baptism, his first miracle at Cana of Galilee, and his adoration by the Magi.

In the Byzantine liturgy it is the baptism that has special prominence, and a solemn blessing of water is celebrated on Jan. 6. The West, in keeping with its historical interest, has made the visit of the Magi the central feature of the solemnity, but also celebrates the Lord’s baptism, normally on the following Sunday, and the miracle of Cana on the Sunday after that (at least in Year C). The divine office, however, commemorates all three mysteries on Epiphany itself.

Although our cribs and our hymns display the “three kings,” Matthew’s Gospel speaks neither of kings nor of the number three. Rather he calls them “magi,” (wise men or astrologers), and does not specify the number (the East has a tradition of 12). The “three” comes from the number of gifts.

Since they came from “the East,” they were non-Israelites, and thus in the Gospel the episode represents the first acknowledgment of Jesus by Gentile peoples. This was the importance of the event for Matthew, who, although a Jewish Christian, strongly emphasizes the Church’s mission to the pagans.

This theme is also a principal emphasis of the Roman liturgy for this day. The responsorial antiphon, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you,” and its accompanying Psalm 72, “All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him,” make this point. Likewise the readings from Isaiah 60, “the riches of the seas shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you,” and the letter to the Ephesians, “in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews,” stress the universality of the Church.

This theme is combined with that of the appearance or manifestation (Epiphany) of God in human form in today’s mystery as it is summarized in the Preface: “Today you have revealed the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations, and, when he appeared in our mortal nature, you made us new by the glory of his immortal nature.”

What the liturgy calls the “wonderful exchange,” in which God assumed our human nature so that we might share in his divine nature, is eloquently expressed in the collect for Epiphany: “God, who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star, grant in your mercy that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.” This is, in brief form, the entire mystery of the Christmas season.


FATHER CLAUDE PEIFER, OSB, is the former abbot of St. Bede Abbey in Peru. Previously he had served his community as master of novices and junior monks, as choirmaster, and as chief financial officer. His teaching and writing have been in the areas of sacred Scripture and monastic studies.

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