Following the big holidays of Christmas and New Year's, the feast of the Epiphany is easily minimized in importance.
But it's actually an older holiday, or holy day, than Christmas, dating back to about 194 A.D. The day also is sometimes referred to as Twelfth Day, and the night before as Twelfth Night, which reflects its connection with "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Traditionally celebrated Jan. 6, but celebrated in the Catholic church on a nearby Sunday (Jan. 2 this year), the feast of the Epiphany typically commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men (Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar or Gaspar) to Jesus' birthplace.
The holiday is recognized today in the Lutheran liturgical calendar, as well as in Anglican, Eastern and Roman Catholic churches. In many Eastern churches, it is celebrated as the day of Christ's baptism, and is sometimes acknowledged through the baptism, in blessed waters, of whole congregations.
About the Magi, or Three Wise Men, the Rev. David Schoessow of Crosslake said there may not have been three of them, and they may not have been kings.
"The old hymn 'We Three Kings' probably comes from the old story in Matthew, coming out of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It doesn't really say there were three of them. And they were wise men in the sense that they studied the stars," Schoessow said.
"The Magi were from Persia, and they probably specialized in astronomy," he said. "In that culture, since they didn't have a good understanding of what stars were, they attributed supernatural markers of the future, or events that might be coming, as meanings for what the stars were.
"The question has always been -- what is this star that led the wise men from Persia to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem?" Schoessow said.
He postulates a few different practical explanations, tying together the "pseudo-science" of that time to the prophecy of the arrival of the Messiah.
"And it might have been a supernatural event that God created just for this event, and that's another possibility. We simply don't know," Schoessow said.
Schoessow's church, Mission of the Cross Lutheran in Crosslake, held an Epiphany Festival on Thursday night, with a worship service similar to its Christmas eve candlelight service. The celebrants then headed outdoors to gather around a bonfire of discarded Christmas trees, sing Christmas carols one last time this season, and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies.
The trees are burned, Schoessow said, "... for the fire and warmth and light, representing Christ as the light of the world. How the tree is consumed is kind of like how Christ was consumed for us."
Schoessow picked up this idea, he said, about 15 years ago from another church and has practiced it in his own churches since.
Father George Zeck of St. Christopher's Catholic Church in Nisswa and St. Alice Catholic Church in Pequot Lakes, said that "within the Catholic church, Christmas and the Epiphany are seen as an entity. The seeking of the Wise Men, or Magi, of the Christ Child, affirms the purpose of why Christ was born ... son of God, son of man for all nations. I can affirm that the Church does not see the Epiphany as separate from Christmas. It's one continual celebration.
"Even though Christmas may fall on a weekday, the Epiphany always falls on a Sunday, because it was the Lord who was born and called all nations to convert. For us, the Sunday celebration of the Epiphany is the affirmation of the entire Christmas season. It's not so much a matter of what we do differently, it's the constant expression of our faith."
Zeck cites the practice of having children carry wise men to the altar as "more of a family expression of the faith." Sometimes churches will also practice ceremonies relating to the wise men at Christmas creches, he said.
"Particular carols or hymns, such as 'We Three Kings,' 'The First Noel' and 'Sing We Now of Christmas,' can easily be sung during Epiphany, incorporating the elements of the Magi seeking (Christ).
"There are things we can do," Zeck said, "but the constant theme is that Christmas and Epiphany are not separate. The word Epiphany means manifestation (in Greek). Christmas means the birth of Jesus. Epiphany would say the manifestation of his birth for all nations."
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