January 6, The Day of Epiphany What We Know is Wrong
My nephew is working in Russia as a teacher of English as a second language. His mother called him on Christmas Day to learn that he had spent the whole day teaching because it is not a holiday. As soon as I heard that, I said to myself, “Of course! Russia is a communist country. And, the Orthodox Church is the primary Christian influence—what there is of it, and for them the Day of Epiphany is the central holiday. This is the day of gift giving as the church celebrates the gifts given by the magi.”
On this day, Epiphany, the sixth of January, three kings--Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar; and Balthazar, an Arabian scholar—came to the stable in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born, knelt down before him, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At least that is what most people believe. However, there are only three correct facts in that sentence. See below* to find out what is correct. Everything else is tradition that has been added to Matthew’s account.
The date is wrong because Jesus was born in the spring, not December. We do not know the names nor the number of the magi, only that there were three gifts, and so supposedly three magi. They were not kings nor wise men but astrologers. Matthew clearly states that they came to the house, and the timing could have been as long as two years after Jesus’ birth.
Sometimes it upsets me that the majority of the Nativity Sets have the three kings in them, and, as often as not, there is not even a single shepherd. Wrong! Wrong!!! WRONG!
Why are these traditions so strong? What is happening that causes whole cultures to reverence three kings kneeling in the muck of a stable before an hours old infant wrapped in rags and lying in a manger?
Perhaps that is it. The visual, olfactory, and auditory contrasts are so strong that we cannot fail to get the point: God’s deep humility calls forth a corresponding humility from us.
*The three correct facts are that 1) the name of the village was Bethlehem, 2) they knelt and paid Jesus homage, and 3) the three gifts are indeed gold, frankincense, and myrrh.