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Hallo again to all.

Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Many Anglican churches celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany today. Others celebrated it on the actual date of its occurrence, which was Friday 6 January; some did both. Known in many cultures as Three Kings Day, the word 'epiphany' derives from a Greek term meaning 'appearance'. Though only a footnote in many congregations now, the celebration of Epiphany was for centuries afforded a celebration of the same magnitude as Christmas, often including a celebration of Jesus' baptism.

Like many other important feasts in the church year, Epiphany is scarcely mentioned in the Bible. Matthew writes (2:1-12): 'After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi* from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."'

There is nothing in scripture to identify these wise men, or even to record how many wise men there were (though noting that there were three gifts). Yet a rich tradition has evolved over the centuries, counting three wise men, giving them names and attaching meaning and symbolism to each. Over time, the 'wise men' became known as kings or Magi, hence the title and words of the popular 1857 Christmas carol 'We Three Kings'.

In much of the Christian world, the Feast of the Epiphany is called 'Three Kings Day', which rather limits speculation as to their number, but in the Syriac Christian tradition there are twelve magi. Matthew does not name the wise men or call them kings, but tradition, aided by selective mining of the Old Testament, fills in. In the Roman world, inherited by us Anglicans, they are named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, each a king with a kingdom and a back-story. John Calvin is on record as opposing the title of king for the Magi, dismissing it as 'the most ridiculous contrivance of Papists'. In Ethiopia the three Magi are called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater and in Armenia they are called Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. Once while organizing and directing a Christmas pageant for a parish children's service, we called them 'king 1' and 'king 2', never needing to step beyond the canon of Theodor Geisel to devise a 'king 3'.

Whatever their number or their names, Matthew tells us that they were 'from the east'. With Bethlehem as the reference point, 'the east' could be Babylon, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, or even China (though it would have taken much longer than 12 days to journey from China or India to Bethlehem). But since we refer to three Magi and three gifts, much of the Christian symbolism of the number three has been attached to the legends surrounding the Magi. None of it is directly based on scripture or reliable historical source, but all of it is fun. We giggle in speculation that somehow the three Magi agreed to meet and gather at a Starbucks in Damascus and thence journey together. It is easy to get from Bethlehem to Damascus without approaching Herod's world, so the return trip also makes sense.

The last scriptural mention of the three Magi was that 'they returned to their country by another route'. There are several traditional explanations for what came after they returned to their country, but all involve the Magi becoming Christians after encountering one of the Apostles. There are reliquaries purporting to have the bones of the Magi in Barcelona and Cologne, and some of the pieces of plaster from tombs that were looted to provide those bones have achieved the status of holy relic. Marco Polo wrote that he was shown the three tombs of the three Magi near Tehran in the 13th century, but his account is somewhat too fanciful, claiming that when he saw the tombs a thousand years after their deaths, 'the bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining'. The Cologne contingent reports that Queen Helen retrieved the bodies in a gilded chest and brought them to Constantinople, from which they were stolen and moved.

Whoever they were, whatever they were, and whence they came is neither knowable nor important to us. We have always been grateful to the three wise men for creating the notion of worshipping Jesus, we have always enjoyed thinking about the long process that brought them to Bethlehem, and also the singing of their carol.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

8 January 2017

*The Greek text of Matthew uses the word μάγοι, magos, which seems to be a reference to a Zoroastrian priest, though it is also the root of the English word 'magic'.

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