January 6 is the climax of the twelve days of Christmas in the Christian calendar. It is the last day of the Christian festival known as The Epiphany, which celebrates the day three wise men, or three kings arrived at a stable in Bethlehem guided by a star.
O Star of Wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light
The song We Three Kings of Orient Are tells the story**.
It relates how ‘men from the east’ came to witness the birth of the promised ‘Son of God’ as recorded in The Holy bible, book of Matthew, Chapter 2
‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him’*
The subject of the life and agonizing death of the man called Jesus, known as the Christ, our saviour for over two thousand years, has throughout history formed a visual language, one that allowed many great artists to address universal questions of love, hope, grace and suffering.
Together symbolism and art frequently made spiritual ideas accessible. This is as true today as it was in times past. Those who recorded the many stories about Jesus were aiming not only to illustrate his life but also to fully capture both his divinity and purpose.
The early ‘followers of the way’ of Jesus the Christ gathered in the catacombs, the underground burial chambers at Rome.
They understood the story of the now faded image of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, or three ‘wise’ men on the walls was apocryphal. The image of ‘three men’ was meant to be symbolic of the whole community of the followers of the way of Jesus, coming before the throne of God to give thanks.
The number three was a later addition to the story. The plural ‘magi’ entered the English language in Latin around 1200. The word ‘magi’ has a threefold meaning and was poignant because it also related to the Trinity; the three states of God – father, son and holy spirit.
Symbolism succeeds where words often seem to fail and throughout the Middle Ages reading that symbolism was assisted by the ‘art of memory’.
The gifts they brought the Christ child were the key to their identity in ancient texts, as well as a pointer to the earthly ministry of Jesus. Gold represented his Kingship, Frankincense his Priestliness and Myrrh was for anointing his body following his death, which was always predicted.
Over the centuries the tale of the ‘three wise men’ gained in stature, as well as importance and eventually they became ‘Three Kings’ and liturgical stars of the western Church from the seventh century onward.
Their images are constantly depicted in works of art after this date achieved what we would now call ‘celebrity status’. The most famous representation of them is the ‘Mosaic of the the Tree Wise Men in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna.
The city of Ravenna in Italy, in a number of its most notable buildings, conserves the most intact set of Roman mosaic images from the days of the Roman Byzantine Empire. This is because the northern Italian City was chosen in the year 404 as the Imperial residence of Byzantine Emperor Honorius (395-423).
In the view of many historians, Byzantium’s greatest achievement was the Christian civilizing influence it exerted over the peoples it encountered. The stories related symbolically in the stunning mosaics at Ravenna have contributed much to that view.
The early church was blessed with many brilliant minds with a genius for organization, especially the apostle Paul. He motivated many communities to put in place a mechanism of administrative skills that ensured traditions established continued.
They were carried forward, at least by one medieval monarchy, which has managed to survive intact until today, the English monarchy.
Every year on that date in England an ‘Affair of State‘ is announced in English court circulars. Queen Elizabeth 11, as head of State and anointed of the Lord, dispatches two Gentlemen Ushers wearing service dress to the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace.
Escorted by the Yeomen of the Guard they carry her offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh, keeping alive the traditions of the Christian faith and also honouring the spirit of Byzantium (capital modern day Istanbul) the city that was ‘a golden bridge joining the East and the West’.
Nobel prize winning American born British poet, critic, dramatist and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), himself a Christian said
‘the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation’.
How do we advise and encourage our fellow man to forget injuries, but never to forget kindnesses without at first having our own ‘epiphany’ so that we can truly understand the message.
Whether we believe or not that Jesus was the son of God, we would have to acknowledge that he was at the very least, one man who was prepared to stand firm for what he believed in.
He had the courage of his convictions and gave his life so that followers of his way, for over two millennium, would continue to have hope.
A just society works towards the greater good, seeking to conserve freedom of choice and continually debates the right way to value, reward and encourage its citizens.
Perhaps if we all seek to better understand the irrational hidden forces that shape our own daily decisions we might stop making the same type of mistakes we have for centuries and change the way we interact with each other and the world around us.
To my mind the getting of wisdom is when we realize, despite eons of learning, that in the grand scheme of things we really know very little at all
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, Epiphany January 6, 2014, revised 2015
*Matthew 2 Standard King James Version
**We Three Kings of Orient Are – Christmas Carol by John Henry Hopins, Jr, 1857