When I hear the word epiphany, I always want to shout, “Eureka!” Because that’s what you exclaim when you have an epiphany, right? But I never really attached the holiday with the word epiphany: “an appearance or manifestation; a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning.”
Epiphany has been a documented holiday as far back as the 2nd century. Epiphany lumped all of Jesus’ early stories into one. The visit of the magi, the baptism, and the wedding at Cana. Each revealed more and more Christ’s manifestation. In the repetition of Bible stories, I’ve forgotten that it took time for people to realize, “Hey, this is Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.” Knowing the whole story, it’s hard to remember not everyone knew the outcome. I’ve heard the Nativity story so often that I forget to notice some of the more amazing details of the story, like a group of Gentiles travelling very far to look at some Jewish baby.
The Magi were scholars/astronomers from the East. Some interpretations have them as kings. At any rate, they were men who studied the stars, and they saw in the stars a sign of a new king. Not only did they believe a king to be born in Judah, but they understood him to be a king who they should go and honor, even kneel down before.
What are we to make of these strange men that appear, acknowledge Christ, and then disappear again? When in doubt, I read T. S. Eliot. In his poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” one of the magi realizes that after he has seen the Christ-child, he has to acknowledge that the world is different. He can’t go home and consult the stars or worship pagan gods and have his normal life go on. Seeing Christ changes everything about him and everything about his world. The age of oracles and gods is passing away.
Lots of traditions and symbols are heaped on the Magi. First, there are usually the extra-Christian number of three of them. Then there is the tradition that they were from the corners of the known world: Northern Europe, China, and Africa, representing the whole human race acknowledging Christ. Or they were Babylonian, so the former captors of the Jews were now bowing before a Jewish king. Then the tradition of the gifts foreshadowing Christ’s path, as Origen put, "gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God."
To me, the Magi represent that Christ came to save all of us, not just the Jews. That even men who weren’t looking for a specific Messiah could be drawn to Him and understand Him to be King. Yet whatever you make of the Magi, the point is that once you find Jesus, everything changes, and you exclaim, “I have found it!”