Epiphany (from a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance) is a festival celebrated on January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas (for that reason it is also called Twelfth Night). It celebrates three different events that manifested or revealed the glory of Jesus Christ to the world: (1) in the adoration of the Wise Men from the East (see the second chapter of Matthew), (2) Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, when a voice from heaven proclaimed him the Son of God (see the first chapter of Mark), and (3) the marriage at Cana where Jesus began his miracles by changing water into wine (see the second chapter of John). Over the next few Sundays we will be hearing these stories from the Bible.
Various legends have grown up around this festival. The Wise Men (or Magi) became the Three Kings, though the Bible does not say they were kings or even that there were three of them. Another legend is that as the Wise Men traveled towards Bethlehem, they met an old woman who was cleaning her house. They invited her to follow them. After she finished sweeping and collected some gifts for the holy child, she set out, but by then the Wise Men were out of sight. Ever since that day, she has been wandering the earth looking for the child Jesus. According to Italian folklore, on the eve of Epiphany she comes down the chimneys of the houses and leaves gifts for children. In Italy she is known as the Befana (a corruption of the word Epiphany). Over the centuries, Epiphany became a day of pranks and revelry (which may explain why Shakespeare’s play about jokes and disguises is called Twelfth Night). In Rome, the revelry was centered in the Piazza Navona, where crowds gathered to sing, dance, and make as much noise as possible. The final movement of Ottorino Respighi’s delightful work, Roman Festivals, presents the Befana festival in musical form.
These folk legends and customs remind us of a time when Christianity was the dominant popular culture and furnished seasonal occasions for joy and sorrow, reflection and revelry. This is no longer the case. One can no longer learn about Jesus Christ simply by cultural exposure. But that does not change the importance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for our eternal destiny. At St. Barnabas, we are dedicated to preserving and spreading the Good News. Come and hear about it!