If the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem signifies to some Christians the birth of Christ consciousness within, what then shall we see in the gifts of the Magi?
Twelve days after Christmas, Jan. 6, Friday, marks Epiphany, a celebration of the divine nature of Christ manifested to the three Magi.
Symbolically, it could be said that:
– Melchior gives royal gold, for the infinite wealth of God’s kingdom, within.
– Balthazar gives frankincense, a substance used in ancient rituals to both conceal God with its smoke and reveal God with its scent.
– And Gaspar gives myrrh, an aromatic gum resin that aids in breathing in the Holy Spirit.
Medically, it is interesting to note that frankincense can be used as a hemostatic agent to stop the flow of blood from an open wound. As to myrrh, it has antiseptic and sedative properties. Its camphor aroma also aids with breathing.
Don’t you think these gifts would be as precious as gold for a birthing woman, especially in a small village in Palestine some… 2000 years ago?
And yet, why would the visit of the Magi have postdated the birth of Christ by a full twelve days?
The answer may be traced back to the pagan feast of the Epiphany, which concluded the Twelve Days of the Yule Festival from Dec. 25- Jan. 6, the Festival of the Rebirth of Light (Yule) from the womb of the Goddess Isis, Queen of the Night.
Traditionally known as “The Twelfth Night,” the Feast of the Epiphany included decorating houses with greenery, candle-lighting, singing processions and exchanges of gifts. The Celtic druids cut mistletoe off the sacred oak tree and gave it as a blessing for the New Year.
Over time, the Roman Catholic Church appropriated the Feast of the Epiphany as the visit of the Magi bringing gifts to the revelatory manifestation of the divine child. In an effort to systematically convert pagans, it was decided by several councils to set Christian holidays on dates overlapping with Pagan Festivals. The most famous one is the Council of Nicaea, which regulated most of the Christian liturgy and articulated the “Nicene Creed,” 325 years AFTER Christ’s birth.
The Armenian Apostolic Church still observes Christmas on Jan. 6, while this year, some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, the date on the Gregorian calendar (ours) which corresponds to Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar (Roman).
Isn’t it fascinating to see how world faiths merge and combine to create rituals by which to explain natural phenomena (such as increasing light at the winter solstice) and honor their mystery?
To this day, I can recall my Armenian grandmother and her Christmas celebrations that began on Dec. 24, continued with Masses and meals all the way through Jan. 6, her Armenian Christmas and our French Catholic “Fête des Rois,” or “Kings’ Feast.” At the time, my siblings and I were more interested in “la galette des rois,” the kings’ cake and its hidden porcelain fava bean, another remnant of the Twelfth Night Festivities. Indeed, whoever picked “la fève” was declared Queen or King, chose their consort and got to wear a golden cardboard crown all night.
In order to Christianize the tradition some more, the fava bean is sometimes replaced by a porcelain baby to represent Jesus.
In contemporary English, common language has integrated the word “epiphany” to mean an inner realization, a moment of awakening when we’re “enlightened” by an inner “light bulb.”
Whether inherited from the Yule Festival, birthed by the Goddess Isis or brought by Three Magi, what epiphany will the Twelfth Night reveal to you?