The feast of the Epiphany is beloved around the world, with children in some places receiving gifts on this day from “the three kings,” while in other places revelers celebrate this “Twelfth Night” that marks the end of the high Christmas season.
But what exactly happened on this somewhat mysterious feast? The Bible tells us very little about this coming of the magi.
Western tradition holds that there were three wise men because they gave three gifts, but in actuality, we don’t know how many magi came. In fact, the Eastern tradition is that there were 12 of them. We don’t know where they came from (other than generally “from the East”) and we don’t know exactly who they were.
In this gap of knowledge, artists and other creatives over the years have imagined all kinds of scenarios. The coming of the Magi is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, with paintings of it surviving from as early as the 2nd century.
As we mark the feast of the Epiphany, I wanted to share with you one of the most helpful things I’ve read to understand the meaning and depth of this occasion. It’s T.S. Eliot’s poem from 1927, “Journey of the Magi.”
What was the long journey like for these wise men? How did their brief meeting with the Christ Child change their lives? His poem touches on all these things. Eliot helps me to see and feel their journey and its significance for all people, and he leads me to wonder how Christ will change my heart too.
I don’t want to ruin it by overexplaining, so I’ll just say that there is so much depth and richness here on which we can meditate. Reading and pondering it brings the Magi and their story to life for me like nothing else I’ve read.
I’ve shared the opening lines of the poem below. You can read it in its entirety (and hear it read aloud) here for your enjoyment and reflection. Happy Epiphany!
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter …