We call today’s feast the “Epiphany” but it is really just one of three ‘epiphanies’ we are celebrating at this time. ‘Epiphany’ means a ‘showing’ or ‘revelation’ and, at this time, we are remembering and celebrating three ‘revelations’ or ‘showings’ of God: 1) Christmas, 2)Epiphany, and 3) the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The Orthodox Church calls today’s feast a “theophany”, which more explicitly indicates a divine showing, a divine revelation (theos=God).
Who were the “wise men”? They are called magi (magoi) in the Greek text, which we render in English as ‘Magi’. Originally a designation of the Persian priestly caste, the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. They were interpreters of dreams and readers of the skies, astrologers, even magicians.
Later, under the influence of the Hebrew Testament texts, they came to be referred to as ‘kings’ e.g. “When kings see you, they will stand up, and princes shall prostrate themselves” (Isaiah 49:7) and “Foreigners shall rebuild your walls, and their king shall be your attendants” (Isaiah 60:10) and Psalm 72:10, “The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute. The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts”.
We can also ask, How many wise men were there? Surely three? But, in fact, Matthew does not say. Presumably the number three grew out of there being three gifts:
- Gold represented Jesus in His role as The King of kings and Lord of lords, one of precious value and beauty.
- Frankincense (A pale yellow semitransparent aromatic compound) represented Jesus in His role as The Great High Priest to be a living and brightly burning sacrifice.
- Myrrh (an Arabian gum resin) represented Jesus in His role as The Great Prophet as a reminder of Jesus mission to the world to die for sin & His body preserved.