Dear parish family,
This weekend, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany, commonly known as the Feast of the Three Kings. This ancient liturgical celebration primarily commemorates the visit of the Magi-three wise men or kings who came from the East-representing the Infant Lord’s manifestation to all the Gentiles (the non-Jewish people of the world). It also celebrates the corresponding call of the Gentiles to faith in Jesus Christ, the true King and Savior of the world. The celebration of the Epiphany predates even the celebration of Christmas and is thus one of the oldest festivals on the Church’s calendar, dating from at least the third century.
The word “epiphany” is from the Greek language, and it means a “revealing” or a “manifestation.” It refers to the great manifestations of our Lord’s incarnate nature as truly God and truly man, “God in flesh made manifest:” Understood in this sense, Jesus’ birth, the adoration of the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan River where the Father revealed him as His beloved Son, and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, can be considered “epiphanies”. In fact, at one point in the Church’s history, all of these events were celebrated on the Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany, but now the liturgical calendar assigns particular feasts or proper days for each.
There are some distinctive customs associated with Epiphany. On Epiphany the crèche, or nativity scene, is completed with the addition of the figures of the three Magi that have not been brought out before this date. Many families move the figures of the Magi from place to place around their home as they make their way to visit the Christ Child. Some families, in imitation of the gifts of the Magi to the Infant Jesus, exchange gifts on this day instead of Christmas, thus giving it the name “Little Christmas”. Christmas trees and Christmas decorations would not be taken down until after the Epiphany. In my home country of Vietnam, and in Italy where I have lived for many years, Christmas decorations are often kept even to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which this year falls on February 2nd.
The evening before the traditional date for Epiphany, January 6, is the 12th Day of Christmas, and is often called Twelfth Night. In many European cultures, this night is celebrated with special spice wines, while in Oriental cultures, spicy foods and sweets (such as those containing curry or ginger) are served in commemoration of the Magi who came from the Orient where spicy foods are popular. Another popular tradition found in many cultures is the baking of an Epiphany cake, often a fruitcake or a spice cake, into which a bauble (such as a coin, charm, or a hard bean) is secretly inserted. The person who finds the trinket in his or her piece of cake is crowned King or Queen of the feast, and is given special honor, privileges and gifts.
Regardless of how else you choose to celebrate this day, participation in the Holy Mass should take pride of place. This weekend, I will get to celebrate Mass at the very church in North Vietnam where my father and mother were born, and where many of our relatives are still living. There will be a procession of children dressed up as kings and queens, bearing gifts to the Lord. After the Mass, the whole parish will have a feast together, and the guests of honor will be all the non-Catholic villagers who represent the modern “Gentiles” who come to visit the Lord. I am told that every year some people from this group will ask to be baptized as Catholics. It is a great way of introducing people to Christ and His family, the Church.
As I continue my brief journey to the fatherland to reconnect with my roots, be assured that I will remember you at the Altar each day, especially when I visit the tombs of the Vietnamese Martyrs, four of whom are among my ancestors, two on my father’s side, and two on my mother’s side. I will pray for you and your intentions.
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham