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The Epiphany of the Lord

by Kilian J. Hennrich, O.F.M., Cap., A.M.


This article, written in 1942 by Kilian J. Hennrich, examines the historical aspects of the Epiphany of Our Lord, its liturgical or mystical meaning, as well as the character-training and personality-building values hidden in the mystery of the Feast.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


129 – 139

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, November 1942

"Behold I (came to) make all things new!" (Apoc., xxi. 5). This activity of the Redeemer, revealed to St. John on Patmos, began with His birth. The Old Dispensation that was intended to prepare for Christ and for the theocracy of Israel was to be changed into a New Dispensation in which Christ would reign as an invincible King. After His birth Jesus did not wait long to inaugurate this radical change. The Jews had been invited to the Crib in the persons of the shepherds; they came and saw what had come to pass, but the Evangelist says nothing further about them. Nor do history and tradition assure us that they recognized the Divine Child as their God and King. It is nowhere mentioned that the shepherds adored Him, nor are they venerated as Saints. They simply vanished, and seemingly were the first ones of the many Jews who saw Him but received Him not. They wanted a Messiah according to their own ideas. The New Dispensation was offered to them first, but as a people they will be the last one to accept it. Judaism had fulfilled its mission as a carrier of the faith and the promise. When the Redeemer came, Juda's preference among nations ceased. The Synagogue received a few years of grace and then vanished without hope of a resurrection. After that, only individual Jews are called to merge themselves with the Mystical Body of Him whom they rejected whilst He was living among them as God-Man. Christ turned to the Gentiles, to all who were not Jews, for the material to build His Kingdom on earth. He Himself did not personally go and preach to the Gentiles, but He called their representatives to Himself and manifested to them His person and divine nature.

The Coming of the Gentiles

The first manifestation of this kind described in the Gospel is the visit of the Magi, which is celebrated on one of the most solemn and oldest feasts in the Church, called the Epiphany of the Lord. The episode is related in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (ii. 1-12). A brief commentary on the pericope will enhance its significance.

"There came wise men from the East to Jerusalem," seeking the newly born King of the Jews. Holy Scripture does not give their number, names, or nationality. The traditional number of three was arrived at by the number of gifts offered to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Later on the Magi were presumed to be descendants of the three sons of Noe (Sem, Cham, and Japhet), or representatives of the three Continents known at that time (Asia, Europe, and Africa). Undoubtedly, they were Gentiles. Not all descendants of Sem became Jews, for the latter called Abraham their father. These Wise Men were of some importance according to Oriental standards. They were learned, because they had knowledge of the prophecies which were not generally known outside of Jewish circles. They knew something about astronomy — otherwise they would not have discovered a new and special star; and they were wise — otherwise they could not have seen the connection between the prophecies and that particular star. A grace from above most probably enlightened them, but grace builds upon nature and is usually not a substitute for study, reading, and research. They also must have been men of some importance; their gifts and the fact that Herod received them and called a council to advise them, establishes this sufficiently. Whether they were rulers or kings over their peoples is not certain, but the tradition that they were kings is very old. However, the fact that their bones are venerated as sacred relics proves that their visit to Bethlehem was not without good effects upon their whole life.

"Entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary His mother." It is natural to assume that after the departure of the crowd who had come to Bethlehem for the census registration the Holy Family moved out of the stable to a house. Joseph, although not mentioned in this passage, was also present, because soon after the departure of the Wise Men an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to leave immediately for Egypt with the Child and His mother. One special act of the Magi, not mentioned at the visit of the shepherds, was that "falling down they adored Him; and . . . offered Him gifts." The Wise Men adored Him as God, and they gave royal gifts to acknowledge Him as a King before whom they could not appear with empty hands. Then they "went back another way into their country." The reason for taking a different way home was because Herod sought to kill the Child, but this text is also spiritually interpreted by saying that they followed another way of living after they had confirmed their faith, realized their hope, and demonstrated their love to the Infant Saviour.

Great Antiquity of the Feast

The feast of the Epiphany, now celebrated on January 6, is not an anniversary, since the visit of the Magi must have taken place after the presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2; and after the visit of the Magi the flight into Egypt took place without delay. There are several reasons for this apparent chronological disorder. The Epiphany celebrates three principal manifestations of Christ's Divinity simultaneously because they have a close relation to one another, as we shall see later. These manifestations are: (1) His appearance to the Gentiles as Redeemer; (2) His manifestation as God-Man by the first miracle at Cana, and (3) the testimony of His being the Son of God given by His Father at the Baptism in the Jordan. All three are basic in the New Dispensation, but all three could not have happened in the same year and about the same date. In addition to this, the birth of Christ was also celebrated on the Epiphany in the early centuries of the Latin Church, as is still the case in the Oriental rites. The descendants of the Gentiles rejoiced more in the fact that the Redeemer had come for all than in the fact that He had come to the Jews. Later on, when the birth of Christ was fixed on December 25 and received a special celebration and liturgy, the Feast of the Epiphany (celebrated long before the introduction of Christmas) was left on the original day.

A few historical remarks of no dogmatical importance but of some interest may be added here. The names given to the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, appear for the first time in a manuscript of the sixth century. Whether there was a long earlier tradition regarding these names is not known. According to a tradition written down in the eleventh century, the relics of the Magi were brought to Constantinople by the Empress St. Helena, and thence were transferred in the fourth century to Milan in Italy. After the destruction of Milan by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the year 1164, the conquerors took the reliquary to Cologne and built the famous cathedral for them in the thirteenth century. There they rested until after the first World War the Holy See ordered their return to their original shrine in Milan. The fact that there are at present three skulls does not prove more than that there were at least three Magi, because some relics may have been lost.

Meaning of the Liturgy

Of greater importance for us than the historical notes is the present liturgical or mystical meaning of the Epiphany. Its practical significance for Christianity is expressed by the Antiphon before and after the Benedictus: "Today the Church is espoused to the Heavenly Bridegroom, because Christ in the Jordan washed away her sins; the Magi came with gifts to the royal nuptials; and the wine changed from water rejoiced the feasters." It was the invisible preparation expressed by visible events for the Church that Christ was to establish upon Himself as the cornerstone and upon the Apostles as its foundation (Eph., ii. 20). The Liturgy dwells on the extent and scope of the Church that was to be consecrated on Pentecost.

The visit of the Magi who followed the star, revealed that the Messiah had come to save all men, and that His reign or kingdom on earth was to embrace Gentiles (non-Jews), as well as the descendants of Abraham. Hence, the Church celebrating the mysteries of the Epiphany calls upon all men to enroll under Christ the King: "I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world" (John, xviii. 37). As a Bridegroom, He espouses all souls that believe in Him throughout the ages. Holy Communion is a manifestation of the hidden God-Man uniting Himself with the soul on earth, establishing a temporal union that will be consummated in eternity.

Let us enter a little deeper into the Liturgy and try to grasp some of its meaning. The Matins of the feast, omitting the usual Invitatory and hymn, begins abruptly with the First Nocturn. The Messianic Psalms are the call of the King to submit to His reign: "Bring to the Lord glory, honor and adoration," He calls, and "His voice is penetrating, powerful and majestic in works." "Come to Him and the Lord will give strength to His people and bless them with peace" (Ps. xxviii. 10). The Church is the true home of peace, because "our God is our refuge and strength, a helper in troubles which have found us exceedingly . . . Be still and see that I am God . . . the Lord of armies . . . is our protector" (Ps. x1v. 2, 11, 12). Therefore rejoice, all ye nations, because Christ is the King of all the earth and reigns over all the nations. "The princes of the peoples are gathered together with the God of Abraham," in the Church of Christ (Ps. xlvi. 10). In the Lessons, Isaias foretells in spirit the grace that will come to those who enter the Church of Christ. All nations are invited: "All you that thirst come to the waters (of grace). Incline your ear and come to Me . . . Behold I have given Him (Christ the Redeemer) as a witness to the people; as a leader and a master to the Gentiles . . . I will make an everlasting covenant with you . . . a covenant of love and mercy. Hearken diligently to Me, and your soul shall live and you shall eat that which is good, and your souls shall be delighted . . . Therefore, seek ye the Lord while He may be found: call upon Him while He is near" (Is., Iv. 1-6). At the end of the Lessons, the Church adds a bridal hymn: "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God: for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation (in Baptism), and with the robe of justice He has covered me (sanctifying grace), as a bridegroom decked with a crown, and as a bride adorned with her jewels (of divine virtues)." Then the fruits of this bridal union are indicated: "For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth her seed to shoot forth, so shall the Lord God make justice (faith and charity) to spring forth, and praise (good works and virtues) before all the nations" (Is., lxi. 10-11).

In the Second Nocturn, the Church rejoices that her glorious King of heaven and earth is to reign over all men without exception. This is independent of the will of man, because He cannot be rejected. All the earth shall adore Christ as God and as Man, because He is terrific in His power and unlimited in strength. He will change everything for the better and will reign forever. Trials will come upon us, but He will listen to our prayers (Ps. lxv. 19, 20). To Christ, the Father turned over justice and judgment. He will aid the poor and humiliate the oppressors. "In His days justice shall spring up, and an abundance of peace (of soul), . . . and He shall rule from sea to sea . . . All the kings of the earth shall adore Him; all nations shall serve Him.... In Him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed. All nations shall magnify Him" (Ps. lxxi). Having inspired confidence in the Divine Ruler, the Liturgy prays with and for us: "Give joy to the soul of Thy servant, for Thou, 0 Lord, art sweet and mild, and plenteous in mercy to all that call upon Thee . . . Conduct me, O Lord, in Thy way, and I will walk in Thy truth; let my heart rejoice that it may fear Thy name . . . Show me a token for good: that they who hate me (and Thy Church) may see, and be confounded. . . " (Ps. lxxxv).

The Homily of the feast is by Pope St. Leo the Great, who calls upon his congregation to rejoice in such a powerful and adorable Ruler, whom the Jewish King Herod could not destroy, but to whom the pagan Egypt gave shelter. From this St. Leo concludes that the Church passed from the Jews to the Gentiles, who adored and received Christ.

In the Third Nocturn, Christ is announced and praised as the Founder and the Life of the Church: "The foundations whereof (of the Church) are in the holy mountains . . . Glorious things are said of thee, O City of God . . . Behold the foreigners were there, . . . and the Highest Himself has founded her . . ." (Ps. lxxxvi). "Praise and beauty are before Him; holiness and sanctity in His sanctuary . . . Let all the earth be moved by His presence . . . He shall judge the world with justice, and the people with His truth" (Ps. xcv). "The Lord preserveth the souls of His saints . . . Light is risen to the just, and joy to the right of heart" (Ps. xcvi).

St. Gregory furnishes the Homily, and says that an angel was sent to the Jewish shepherds but a star led the Gentile Magi. Why? He answers with St. Paul that prophets (angels) were sent to the believers and not to infidels; signs, however, were employed with Gentiles and not with the faithful. In the New Dispensation, Christ Himself spoke personally to all and sent His Apostles to preach in His name to all nations. All elements have cooperated to make Christ known. The firmament sent the fiery star to announce His birth; the water of the sea became solid under His feet; the air and wind obeyed Him; and the earth trembled and was riven when He died. But all these testimonies, including the Resurrection, did not move the hearts of the Jews (and many others after them) to faith and penance. We the Gentiles did better, and from the fullness of our heart we intone the Te Deum and pray: "Rank us in glory with Thy Saints above, bless Thy people and rule them raised to glory from the grave."

The theme of the Lauds is stated in the Chapter : "For Sion's sake I will not hold my peace, and for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not rest till her just One comes forth as brightness, and her Saviour be lighted as a lamp" (Is., 1xii. 1). Beautiful thoughts and doctrines are presented in the Antiphons and Hymns of the Divine Office, but these must be left to private study.

The Mass begins with the words: "Behold the Ruler is come; and a kingdom is in His hand, and power and dominion" (cfr. Mal., iii. 1). "Give the King Thy judgment, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the King's Son" (Ps. lxxi. 1). The manifestation of the Lord to the Gentiles is the dominating thought in the Proper of the Mass. The Epistle is a part of the Lessons recited in the First Nocturn and the Gospel announces the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Gradual and Offertory emphasize the thoughts: "Arise and be enlightened, O Jerusalem (Christian congregation or soul), for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee . . . We have seen His star . . . and are come with gifts." The Secret explains these gifts. Our offerings are no longer gold, frankincense and myrrh, "but He who by these same offerings is signified, immolated, and consumed, Jesus Christ our Lord, Himself." The Preface inserts the words: "Thanks to Thee, Holy Lord . . . because when Thine only begotten Son appeared in our mortal substance, He made us anew by the new light of His immortality." What a change did the New Dispensation bring about, and how little is this realized! The Communion and the following prayer recount that we come with our gifts, bringing the gold of faith, the incense of love and devotion, and the myrrh of penance and sacrifice. To this the petition is added: ". . . that what we celebrate with a solemn office, we may attain by the understanding of a purified mind." The final Blessing assures us of God's favor. So, we leave the Sacrifice with the final words of the Last Gospel ringing in our ears and echoing in our hearts: "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, as it were the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John, i. 14). Thanks be to God." Returning to our secular occupations, we foster the hope that all may be fulfilled in us for which the Divine Office and the Liturgy pray throughout the Octave: "O God . . . mercifully grant that we who already know Thee by faith, may be led onward even to the beholding of the beauty of Thy Majesty" (in heaven).

Application of the Liturgy

In addition to glorifying God, the Divine Liturgy intends, as a secondary but no less important objective to us, to serve the sanctification of man. In this also God is glorified. To attain this objective, the drama of the Liturgy teaches, illustrates, excites, inflames, and moves the heart or will to live and act in harmony with the mysteries of Christ. Because we are members of Christ's Body, these mysteries are our very own. The Liturgy also furnishes the grace to make these mysteries fruitful. This is clearly established by the often-recurring phrases: Deus, qui . . . docuisti . . . excitasti . . . inflammasti . . . perfecisti . . . etc. The very existence of mysteries is the best proof that they are realities or facts. They are not merely stories of the past or fictions of the mind, but facts that are still present. As such, they are still of the greatest importance to all mankind, since they decide our here and hereafter. It is, therefore, to the principal values for Christian life contained and expressed in the Liturgy of the feast that we must turn now. These values are doctrinal and moral.

Doctrines Emphasized by the Epiphany

The outstanding and fundamental doctrines emphasized and illustrated by the celebration are : (1) Christ is the absolute Ruler and King over all visible creation. St. Paul writes: "In that God has subjected all things to Him, He left nothing not subject to Him. But now we see not as yet all things subject to Him" (Heb., ii. 8). "He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet" (I Con, xv. 25). "And of His kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke, i. 33). (2) Christ must reign in our souls, for souls cannot live without Him. "To every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the giving of Christ" (Eph., iv. 7). "He is the image of the invisible God, . . . before all . . . the head of the Church . . . that in all things He may hold the primacy" (Col., i. 15-18). (3) Christ alone can save us. No one else can. Hence, we need Him. "Whereas you were some time alienated and enemies, . . . yet now He has reconciled you in the body of His flesh through death," writes St. Paul (Col., i. 21, 22). This reconciliation must be made perpetual, and, therefore, Christ Himself says: "Without Me you can do nothing." It was Christ who sent the star to the Magi, and unless He sends actual grace to us we can neither accomplish nor even begin anything good.

Moral Lessons of the Feast

Having been enlightened by these doctrines and become convinced of their beauty and truth, we may profitably consider some important moral conclusions practical for everyday life.

(1) In the Magi we recognize the Gentiles of the past, present, and future, especially ourselves who entirely without personal merit were called to Christianity by the Saviour, to be His very own. "You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you," said the Master (John, xv. 16). Day after day He reveals to us His goodness and the greatness of our calling. We have seen His star, and have recognized Him as the first-born among brethren. "For those whom He has foreknown, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom., viii. 29). The Magi had their troubles until they reached Christ in Bethlehem. Christ came to us in Baptism, but we shall not reach Him in heaven without exertion. The prophet says: "For Thy sake we are put to death all the day long." St. Paul adds: "But in all these things (our troubles and trials) we overcome because of Him who has loved us; . . . (and nothing) can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom., viii. 37-39). If we love Christ as He loves us, we shall follow Him and also love the Church that is Christ. All this should inspire us to "walk worthy of the vocation" to Christianity (Eph., iv. 1).

(2) The Magi returned home by another way. On earth we have no permanent abode, and may follow different ways to arrive at earthly destinies. But we are also pilgrims to heaven, and to reach this final end there is but one way, the following of Christ who said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me" (John, xiv. 6, 7). Hence, we must leave the ways of sin, human judgments, earthly aspirations and worldliness that conflict with the teachings of Christ, because "we have seen the Lord," and have vowed to follow His light. The vicissitudes of life are so many occasions to bring us nearer to Him. The destination we shall reach in eternity depends on the way we follow in life. The stations on the way where the pilgrims may obtain encouragement and strength to overcome the obstacles and to correct their ways if they have erred, are the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments. In the Mass we offer in Christ our little gifts — the gold of faith, the incense of adoration, and the myrrh of penance and sacrifice. We receive in turn from Christ graces of infinite value needed for conversion, improvement, and perseverance.

The Magi and the Lay Apostolate

(3) The Magi after having returned to their people were not slow in making known the results of their trip. They spread the news that they had found Him for whom mankind had been waiting. Did they change their secular occupations or professions? Most probably not, because there was no need for that. All they did was to make known the coming of the Redeemer to those with whom they came in contact. The visit to the Lord had filled them with the zeal of the apostolate. The Magi would have been forgotten in history like the shepherds, if they had not labored for the extension of the reign of Christ whom they had recognized as God and as universal Ruler. This zeal for Christ was a baptism of desire by which they entered the Church then being formed. The founding of the kingdom of God on earth was announced and its extension made known by the Epiphany of the Lord, and from that time on the construction progressed and is not yet completed. Everyone who knows Christ and recognizes Him as the Head of the Church, can aid in its extension. For doing this, it is not necessary to leave the world; on the contrary, unless the laity constitutes the largest unit in the missionary force, the progress of the Church must necessarily be slow. What are the few thousand ordained missionaries among so many millions of pagans? Nor is it necessary for people living in the world to change their way of living. All that is required for being successful as missionaries is the moral change necessary to make their lives truly Christian. This is not only necessary for converting others, but equally so for saving our own souls. St. Augustine says: "You who are called Christians because you are Christ's repudiate this name if you act differently from what you believe, especially by not showing your faith by good works" (Ad catech., IV, i, 9). Good example is the best method to spread the Faith and to increase the number of faithful. It is an effective means of preaching, because action speaks louder than words. The first Christians employed this apostolate successfully. Not everyone can publicly announce the Faith from the pulpit, over the radio, on street corners, in lectures and writings, but all can give a good example. All the direct means of spreading the Faith will not be very effective unless the good life of Christians forms the background and also the proof. In addition to this, many may have an opportunity to spread the Faith privately among friends, acquaintances, companions in the office, store, factory, army, etc. In the biographies of converts we learn that the first impulse towards turning to the Church usually came from associates. Opportunities for guiding and leading others to the right path are not lacking. St. Jude furnishes in his Epistle some very pertinent thoughts. His Epistle is called Catholic, because its content is of universal application and not limited as to time and circumstances. It is addressed "to the called who have been loved in God the Father and preserved for Jesus Christ." To these Catholics he issues a warning against false prophets constantly arising: "Woe to them, for they have gone in the way of Cain, and have rushed on thoughtlessly into the error of Balaam for gain . . . These men are looking after themselves, . . . banqueting together; they are clouds without water chased about by the winds (of public opinion), trees in the fall, unfruitful, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea foaming up their shame, for whom the darkness has been reserved forever." It does not need much explaining and adaptation to recognize among the false prophets so graphically described many prominent characters figuring in the public press, airing themselves in magazines, best-sellers and professional or educational journals, foaming up their errors without blushing or shame. A good word in season addressed to our associates will do much to neutralize such obnoxious counsels and principles, and to retard or obviate the corruption of careless Christians. If millions of Catholics would interest themselves in showing the fruits of Christianity in their everyday life, the words of Henoch, quoted by St. Jude, would come to pass: "Behold the Lord has come with thousands of His holy ones; to exercise judgment upon all, and convict all the impious of all their impious works and of all the hard things that impious sinners have spoken against Him." It is not necessary to defer this until the day of judgment. Many can be saved before that time by our kind words and prudent antagonism. The Apostle concludes his Epistle with the admonition: "As for you, beloved, build up yourselves upon your most holy faith . . . Keep yourself in the love, of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some reprove, but others save; . . . and be merciful."


The erects of the Epiphany (Manifestation) of Our Lord were not the same in all who learned about it. As far as Herod was concerned, the effects were most deplorable. When he heard about the newly born King of the Jews, he was troubled, and, under the pretext of wishing to adore, he sought to kill the Child. God protected His Son and will protect the Church. But "why have the Gentiles raged, and the rulers of the world stirred up and the people devised vain things against Christ?" (Ps. ii). Because of ignorance, jealousy, hatred and malice. Herod and his people were the first who persecuted Christ on earth, but they could not have crucified Him against His will. Even after His death the persecutions did not cease, but continued in the form of persecutions of His Church. As soon as Christ becomes visible in His followers, as soon as His Church extends her influence and her prestige increases — in one word, as soon as her divine authority becomes apparent, immediately the chorus of big and small rulers in government, politics, diplomacy, education, commerce, industry and labor shouts: "We do not want the Church (Christ) to reign over us!" This is nothing new. Christ knew it, and assured us that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church built upon Peter, the rock (Matt., xvi. 18). It was not His will that persecutions should cease altogether; they are too valuable a means for arousing the lukewarm, casting off the dead branches, exciting the faithful to heroic virtues, and making the glorious crown of martyrdom available to many. "We are persecuted and we suffer it" (I Con, iv. 32). "We suffer persecution, but we are not forsaken" (II Con, iv. 9). "If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you," said the Master who suffered from His infancy with the Church (John, xv. 20). "I am with you all days even to the consummation of the World," continuing His sacrifice and sufferings in His members (Matt., xxviii. 20). "Have confidence, I have overcome the world" (John, xvi. 33). And remember: "Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' (My) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt., v. 10).

The character-training and personality-forming values hidden in the mystery of the Epiphany, especially for spiritualizing and fortifying the young, are very evident.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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