The recycling area in my local park has been packed since December 27th with unwanted Christmas trees. It’s a sign that the old tradition of Twelfth Night being the end of Christmas is fast disappearing.
Twelfth Night is synonymous with today’s feast of the Epiphany, which marks the moment when the three wise men, or magi, arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to honour the child born there. It is one of the greatest holy days of Christianity.
The scene is familiar from numerous Christmas cards and Renaissance paintings: the three men on their camels, who’ve followed the star and find Jesus lying in a manger. But this is no ordinary visit to a newborn. It is an epiphany: a word meaning a moment of sudden revelation.
And yet the gifts that the magi bring suggest that even as they set out on their journey, they sensed this encounter with the child, deserving of high honour, would be transformational. Matthew’s Gospel records the gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh. At the time, these valuable gifts were standard means of showing respect for a king, and were also recorded as being used as tributes for the god Apollo.
The gifts can be read in another way. For the ancients, gold signified wealth and power – in other words, earthly concerns. Frankincense represents worship – a connection with the divine. And myrrh, an oil extracted from a thorn tree, is used in burials, and so represents death. These three – earthly powers, the divine, and dying – are the great issues that face all humanity. How do we live in this world? Who or what is God? Is death the end?
Having left their gifts and seen the child, the magi were warned in a dream not to go back the same route they’d come and to avoid visiting King Herod who’d asked them for intelligence about the child when they’d found him. “They returned to their own country by a different way”, records Matthew.
A different way can mean, literally, a different road. But in the Old and New Testaments it can also signify a new path for one’s life, a change in one’s behaviour or lifestyle. For the magi, it was much more than giving Herod a wide berth. It was the fruits of their epiphany.
This feast of the Epiphany, then, can signal a moment of change if people ponder what the magi’s gifts represent: the great issues of life, the divine, and death. It could well be a difficult path to embark upon, but a journey that needs taking.
This was Thought for the Day, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 6, 2017.