The Season of Epiphany runs from the eve of the Feast of The Epiphany (January 6; see Matthew 2:1-12) until the Feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (February 2; see Luke 2:22-40).
An epiphany is generally understood to be a moment of sudden and unexpected revelation, but in fact an epiphany is both event and process – the event itself, and the process of interpreting the event and responding to it; or, the initial event and its long-term implications.
The Feast of The Epiphany recalls the story of the Magi, court astrologers who witnessed an event – a new star – and who then went through a process of interpreting that event – this tells of the birth of a new king, the start of a new era – and responding to it – choosing gifts to take to this new king, making the necessary arrangements for a long journey.
But the Season of Epiphany is also concerned with an epiphany event and process for God. In Jesus, God has become a human being. But God does not appear in adult human form, and retaining all his divine knowledge of humanity, as the One who created us and had watched us since that day. Jesus empties himself of divine knowledge, and is born as a baby. That is the sudden and unexpected (albeit foretold) event. But the event gives birth to the process – Jesus must learn what it means to be a human being.
The gifts that the Magi choose to welcome his coming into the world are gifts that will help Jesus to learn what it means to be human. And, therefore, they can help us to discover what it means to be human too.
The gift of gold shows Jesus that to be human is to be a physical being, with physical needs:
need for shelter, for food, for clothing; needs that Jesus will learn that God our Father meets (Matthew 6:25-34).
The gift of incense (symbolising priestly intercession on behalf of the people) shows Jesus that to be human is to be a spiritual being, with spiritual needs:
need to forgive, and be forgiven; needs that Jesus will learn that God our Father meets (Luke 11:4; Matthew 18:21-35).
The gift of myrrh (used to embalm the dead) shows Jesus that to be human is to be an emotional being, with emotional needs:
needs relating to love and loss; needs that Jesus will learn that God our Father meets (Matthew 5:4).
As he grows, and learns to study the Scriptures, his study will confirm those aspects of being human that the Magi’s gifts first introduce to him. For in giving of ourselves we are told we must do so with all of our heart and all our soul and all our strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).
My guess is that as a boy, Jesus pondered the gifts brought him as an infant; that as he grew, he used them wisely – perhaps to redeem someone trapped in debt; as he prayed; perhaps as an eldest son he even helped his mother to prepare Joseph’s body for the grave? My guess is that these gifts shaped his imagination, his understanding.
At the Feast of Epiphany, our family like to invite guests and give them token gifts symbolising gold and incense and myrrh, as reminders of what it means for Jesus to become one of us, to redeem what it means to be fully human. On my bookshelf there is a new gold decoration in the form of a star, a fragranced votive candle, and a tube of hand cream. These will shape my meditations over the next five weeks. My prayer is that I may become more fully human, and that my interaction with others would – in some small way – help them to become more fully human too.