, , , , , , , , ,

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: The Three Wise Men

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “The Three Wise Men” (named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar). Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”, mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 CE by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”. (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Western Church, the 6th of January is Epiphany,[i] the day on which is commemorated the arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi (wise men), the three kings of Orient who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[ii] In the Eastern Church, the birth of Jesus and the Epiphany are on different days: the 6th of January and the 19th of January. It appears this discrepancy is due to the current 13-day[iii] difference between the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Cesar in 45 BCE and the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory VIII (7 January 1502 – 10 April 1585).    

But Epiphany (from the Greek epiphaneia or manifestation) is a trans-cultural phenomenon. If an epiphany involves the manifestation before mere mortals of the power of a god, this manifestation is called a Theophany. Such was the case in Greek mythology. The name Tiffany is an English form of the Greek word Theophany.[iv]

For Christians, a godly manifestation, is usually called an apparition. The Virgin Mary appeared to Sainte Marie-Bernarde Soubirous (7 January 1844 – 16 April 1879) 18 times, at Lourdes. The Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Fátima also appeared on the 13th day of six consecutive months, beginning May 13th, 1917, at Fátima, Portugal.   

So, the word epiphany encompasses the idea of a vision and that of a revelation. In fact, at the moment, the word usually means an important revelation, or what is often termed “a wake-up call.” An epiphany may change the course of a person’s life.[v]

owever, for children born to French-speaking Canadians, Epiphany was the commemoration of the arrival in Bethlehem of the three Kings of Orient, who were bearing regal gifts. They were named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Balthasar was king of Arabia, Melchior, king of Persia, and, Gaspar, king of India. They had been guided by a star.


In my family, Epiphany was a very special day. We received gifts from our parents. Moreover, on that day we ate the cake in which a bean had been inserted. The person who ate the piece of cake containing the bean was crowned King or Queen. It was lovely and magical, and we enjoyed the fact that it was always a holiday.

Epiphany was also the twelfth day of Christmas (Twelfth Night is the night before Epiphany). Epiphany therefore ended the festivities linked with the birth of Jesus. On that day, we took the decorations off the tree and wrapped them carefully so they could be used again and again.

However there was a dark side to the event that was carefully separated from the arrival of the Kings. The Kings of Orient were told by an angel that they should travel home a different way. Similarly, Joseph was told in a dream to depart immediately and take Jesus and Mary to Egypt. Herod ordered the massacre of all male infants just born in Bethlehem. This event is known as the Massacre of the Innocents.


[i] “Epiphany.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 05 Jan. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190101/Epiphany>.

[ii] “Epiphany.”
– the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
– the festival commemorating the Epiphany on 6 January
– a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization. <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/epiphany>

[iii] “Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries.”
Gregorian Calendar, Wikipedia

[iv]Tiffany.” Wikipedia

[v] “Epiphany.”
– the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
– the festival commemorating the Epiphany on 6 January
– a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.
We Three Kings: Epiphany Montage,
arrangement by Eugene Ormandy (18 November 1899 – 12 March 1985)

The Magi

© Micheline Walker
6 January 2012