Happy Epiphany! This is the day we commemorate the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to present the Lord Jesus with gifts. As we all know, these gifts consisted of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
Gold is one of the most ancient of treasures. It is mentioned in scripture as far back as in Genesis 2:12: And the gold of that land is good…”. In ancient times, gold was one of the most important of tradable commodities as its value remained quite stable. It was a gift of great honour and value. Gold speaks to Jesus’ role as the King of Kings.
Frankincense comes from the resin of a tree that grows in the desert. It was considered a rare luxury and a symbol of purity in worship. It was another special gift of honour for the Lord and reflected His future as our Highest of High Priests.
Myrrh comes from a tree and was another very expensive item in those times. Myrrh has a lovely odour but a terrible, bitter taste. It was used in making holy oil and ointment, as a natural pain killer (in particular it was used to those about to be executed to help ease the pain which is why it was offered to Jesus when He was being placed on the cross), and to prepare a body for burial. It is said that not only was this gift given due to its expense and rarity but also as a foreshadowing of the fact that Jesus was born to die for our sins.
Some Epiphany customs are:
The chalk ceremony: We have chalk blessed at church and then mark this inscription over our doors: 20 + CMB + 12. The numbers stand for the year (2012 is shown here) and CMB stands for the names we traditionally assign to the Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. They are also an abbreviation for Christus mansionem benedicat – Latin for Christ bless this dwelling.
The parade of kings: Children make crowns and other costumes if desired to dress up as the Magi and parade through the house. In some countries, like Belgium, children will take this parade outside, going from house to house singing and being given treats at each residence.
King’s Cake: Also known as Twelfth Cake, a cake is made in a ring cake mould so as to represent the crown. It is baked with charms in it that are said to foretell the future for the person who finds them. For example, a coin might stand for wealth, a ring for marriage. A bean is baked into the cake and whoever finds that is named King or Queen of the day!
Putting away the decorations: On Epiphany, the shepherds in the Nativity scene are traditionally replaced with the Wise Men instead. Once the feast of Epiphany is over, it is the customary time to put away the holiday decorations. The remains of the Yule log are put away in a safe spot so that they can serve their purpose as kindling for next year’s log. The Monday after Epiphany is known as Plough Monday. The ashes from the Yule log are gathered up and spread over the fields to bless and fertilize them in preparation for another season of planting. The local priests would also bless the ploughs on this day, a tradition that still occurs in some countries. More information on Plough Monday is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plough_Monday
This is also a perfect time for singing We Three Kings (despite the fact that biblical scholars remind us that we just assumed there were three kings because they brought three gifts, just as we assumed they were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar because these were some of the most likely to have made the journey to find the newborn king)!