In the cartoons, it is a light bulb; in the history of salvation, a star. This is what appears overhead to indicate an epiphany – the sudden manifestation of a new understanding, an insight, or reality. This sudden comprehension changes everything, including plans, and perhaps especially plans.
Today’s feast of the Epiphany of the Lord – or, more accurately, Tuesday’s feast, which in our country is now observed on the Sunday closest to January 6 – takes that star for its own sign. However, since the revision of the liturgical calendar after the second Vatican Council, this day should more accurately be called the Adoration of the Magi, or Three Kings Day.
Originally, the feast of the Epiphany encompassed all three moments of the manifestation of Jesus as God. Though you can no longer find this in the texts of the Mass, evidence remains in the antiphons of the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which the Church, especially clergy and religious, use to sanctify the hours of the day with psalms and prayers. The most explicit is the antiphon for the Marian canticle (Magnificat) of second Vespers:
Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.
Each of these three mysteries is a manifestation, or epiphany, of the divine identity of Jesus. Each accentuates a different aspect of that identity and has a different audience.
The mystery that takes center stage today, the adoration of the magi, is picturesque, has a marvelous soundtrack (“We three kings of orient are”), and is tied most closely in our minds to Christmas, as the wise men and their camels have a place in almost everybody’s Nativity scene. The mysterious adorers from the east have discerned the birth of Christ from the signs of the natural universe – a star – and indicate that his divine identity is “a light to the nations” and “all nations will come to adore you.”
The second manifestation, or epiphany, happens at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes one thing into another, one good thing into something better. Not only does He reveal His lordship over the natural and material world; but He also reveals how He Himself will be present to act in the lives of souls around the world and for the rest of time, in the sacramental order wherein he will change one thing that is good in the natural order into something better in the supernatural order.
The third manifestation, or epiphany, is the Baptism of the Lord by John in the Jordan, when the heavens open, the Spirit descends in the sight of all present, and a voice from above reveals Him to be “my beloved Son.” In the context of John, the last prophet preparing the way of the Lord, Jesus is revealed to be the fulfillment of the (Old Testament) Scriptural promises to Israel.
In the reforms after the last council, the new emphasis on Baptism as the source of our identity in Christ and His Church led to the liturgical separation of that event as a feast in its own right the Sunday immediately after the now-diminished Epiphany. That leaves the wedding feast at Cana to show up only once every three years; not this year, but next.
That Jesus is Lord and Redeemer of 1) the people Israel, 2) all the nations of the world, and 3) everything in creation, takes some time to sink in. So today, as you sing about that star, it is my prayer that this manifestation, this new understanding, this epiphany, grow in your hearts and minds, and give you peace and light – with or without an actual light bulb.