Feast of the Epiphany
Resources for liturgy, assemblies and RE

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on 6th January.

If the feast is being celebrated on a Sunday, schools may wish to have their own liturgy on a suitable day at the beginning of term.

The feast of the Epiphany originated in the Eastern church in the 3rd century where it was a celebration of the baptism of Jesus linked to his nativity. It ranked as one of the three most important feasts of the church's year alongside Easter and Pentecost (the celebration of Christmas as a feast only began in the 3rd century also and was of lesser importance than Epiphany).

The word epiphany comes from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) meaning to make manifest, to show forth, to appear. This was associated with the appearance of the Spirit at Jesus' baptism and the voice of God making manifest the identity of Jesus as his Son (cf. Mark 1:11).

One of the main features of the original feast was the blessing of the water to be used for baptism (something now done at the Easter Vigil in the Western church).

The feast was adopted in the Western church from the 4th century but lost its association with Christ's baptism, instead becoming a celebration of the making known of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Wise Men of St Matthew's gospel (Matthew 2:1-12).

The gospel calls the men from the East who visited the Christ child μάγοι (magoi) meaning sage, wise or learned. They are first referred to as kings by the theologian Tertullian (160-220) who calls them fere reges ('almost kings' - because of their noble calling, representing the Gentiles paying homage to Christ and no doubt reflecting the Old Testament reference to kings in Psalm 71 ('The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts') which is used at the Mass of the Epiphany). The gospel does not say how many Magi there were; this tradition seems to have started with the theologian Origen (185-254) who assumes there must have been three kings because there were three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh).

The first pictorial representation of the three wise men is found in the catacombs of Prisclla dating from the 2nd century.

The three kings seem to have been given names in the 6th century: Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior and Balthasar. They were venerated as saints in the middle ages and the cathedral at Milan claimed to have their relics, brought from the imperial city of Constantinople in the 5th century. They were taken to Germany by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1162 and are now enshrined in Cologne Cathedral.

In England, the Queen makes offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh in the chapel royal at St James' Palace on the feast of the Epiphany.

From 2018, the Feast of the Epiphany has been restored as a Holyday of Obligation in England and Wales, to be celebrated on 6th January. If the 6th January falls on a Saturday or Monday, the feast is transferred to the Sunday.

The Gospel Narrative

Matthew 2:1-12 NRSV

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east.  'Where is the infant king of the Jews?' they asked.  'We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.'  When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.  He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  'At Bethlehem in Judaea,' they told him 'for this is what the prophet wrote: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel'.  Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately.  He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem.  'Go and find out all about the child,' he said 'and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.'  Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out.  And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was.  The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.  But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

Symbolism

The traditions around naming and then developing characters for the Wise Men of the gospel began in the 6th century and grew considerably in the middle ages. There is little consistency about which king is which or who brings what gifts (although Balthasar is usually associated with the myrrh).

Caspar

Caspar is sometimes identified as the King of Tarsus and is an old man represented by his white hair and beard. He wears a gold/green cloak and crown and is the first to kneel in adoration of the Christ child.

Caspar isoften associated with the gift of gold (though this is sometimes Melchior).

Melchior

Melchior is the middle-aged King of Arabia and brings the gift of frankincense from his homeland. He is portrayed with brown hair and beard, wearing a gold cloak

Balthasar

Balthasar is the young black King of Ethiopia and wears a purple/blue cloak.

Balthasar is traditionally associated with the gift of myrrh.

Gold

Gold is the gift of kings, a symbol of kingship.

Frankincense

Frankincense is a type of incense made from the resin of Boswellia trees. Incense is used as a mark of honour used in worship (as when we incense the priest and people at Mass, or the altar or book of the gospels or gifts of bread and wine). It is a symbol of deity.

The gift of frankincense is traditionally symbolized by the colours bronze/brown and green.

Myrrh

Myrrh is a type of incense made from the gum of the Commiphora tree. The essence can be extracted as a liquid as was used to dress wounds, and anoint the dead. The Christian tradition links the birth of Christ with his death (he is born for the salvation of the world which is achieved in the sacrifice of his death) and so the myrrh has come to symbolize death and the oil that was brought by the three Marys on Easter morning to anoint his body.

Myrrh is a symbol both of healing (or salvation) and of death.

The gift of myrrh is traditionally symbolized by the colours purple and blue.

Come to the Manger
An article by Adrian Porter SJ on the origins and symbolism of the Christmas Crib

Assembly PowerPoint Presentation

A short PowerPoint presentation to explain the Epiphany. Suitable for school assemblies or RE teaching.

Download PowerPoint

Epiphany Mass Texts and Readings

Prayers
(cf. Roman Missal p.212, 578 and 711)

Readings
(cf. Lectionary Vol.I p.161)
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 71:1-2, 7-8, 10-13 (Response: All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord.)
*Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
Alleluia: We saw his star as it rose and have come to do the Lord homage.
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

*For Masses with children it is suggested that the second reading is omitted.

Ideas for liturgy

This is a Mass of light - consider how you might use light and lights.

Use figures from the crib to create a simple tableaux before the altar - just the Christ chiild, the kings (and camels) and the star. Tell the gospel story using the figures.

Three wrapped boxes representing the gifts of the kings could be brought in procession (at the beginning of Mass, during the gospel, or at the offertory) and placed before the altar. The traditional colours are gold for the gold, bronze or brown for the frankincense, and purple or blue for the myrrh. Metallic papers are widely available to order online.

Use T S Eliot's The Journey of the Magi, dramatized for three voices, as a reflection on the gospel.


Epiphany Mass Texts & Readings (MS Word)
Journey of the Magi dramatized reading

Liturgical Music for Epiphany

Hymns
Arise and shine, your light has come ( text)
As with gladness men of old
Bethlehem of noblest cities
Christ be our light ( text; performance)
From a distant home ( text; performance)
In the bleak midwinter O splendour of God's glory bright
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
Shine, Jesus, shine!
The first nowell
Thou whom shepherds worshipped
We three kings of orient are

Liturgical music for choir
The Three Kings (Peter Cornelius)
Videntes stellam (Francis Poulenc)

Blessing of Classrooms

Three Wise Men
Barlborough Hall School
Epiphany 2018

The Epiphany tradition of blessing houses for the new year is a practice that can be effectively adapted for schools.

Three children dress up as the three kings (carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; or even just wearing crowns) and carry a star (on a stick) from classroom to classroom. In each room, a brief excerpt from the gospel story could be read, a sweet distributed to each child as a symbol of the gifts, and the room (or rather the people who will occupy the room in the coming year) is blessed by chalking the blessing over the door.

Any of these elements can be adapted to suit the circumstances and resources available.

A Simple Classroom Blessing

The Kings arrive in each classroom, accompanied by children carrying lights/candles, and announce their arrival by ringing a bell or singing the first verse of We Three Kings.

A reader reads from the gospel of Matthew (use the symbolism of reading from the Bible book instead of from a sheet of paper):

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came from the east. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was.  The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The kings take around the gifts of a sweet for each child.

Then the chaplain (or one of the kings) takes chalk and marks up the blessing on the door of the classroom. (If it is difficult to do this on the paint of the door it is an idea to use a strip of black sugar paper attached to the top of the door or above it).

20 + C + M + B + 19

The prayer is spoken as the chalk marks are made above the door:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, followed the star to where Jesus was born two thousand and nineteen years ago. They did him homage and offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

May Christ bless this classroom and all those who teach and learn in it this year. May it be a place of joy and peace. Amen.

Then the chaplain blesses the classroom and the people in it by sprinkling holy water. And the procession of kings departs for the next room. (Don't forget to include the staff room and offices too!)

The Wise Men and the Jesuit Pupil Profile

The story of the Wise Men picks up on a number of the virtues in the JPP.

The word Magi means a well-educated or learned person and is often translated as 'wise' because these people were scholars who used their wisdom to good effect.

They are curious about the prophecies they have studied and curious about the new star which they follow with intent to Bethlehem.

Their wisdom tells them not to report back to Herod and so they return to their country by a different route.

They bring generous gifts with them of gold, frankincense and myrrh and, filled with faith, they see in the newborn baby hope for the future of the world.

More on the Jesuit Pupil Profile

Images

Epiphany 1
Adoration of the Magi
(late 19thC) by the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey, Missouri

Epiphany 2
Epiphany
by Albert Herbert (1925-2008)
Methodist Modern Art Collection

Epiphany 3

unknown source

Epiphany 4
Adoration of the Magi
(2ndC) in the Catacomb of Priscilla

This is the earliest known artistic representation of the three wise men.

Epiphany 5

unknown source

Epiphany 6

unknown source

Epiphany 7

unknown source

Activities

Templates to print off and make Three Kings models in card or paper.

Three Kings template

 

A collection of black and white drawings for children to colour in.

Wise Men colouring page

Video

The Wise Men
Cartoon Bible
Suitable for older primary and lower secondary pupils

The Wise Men (0m 52s)

The Wise Men
Saddleback Kids
Suitable for younger primary children.

The Wise Men (1m 45s)

How to Understand the Three Wise Men
Smithsonian Institution (2017)
A short segment from The Real Jesus of Nazareth explaining the three Wise Men and the significance of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Suitable for secondary pupils.

How to Understand the Three Wise Men (3m 20s)

Poems

The Journey of the Magi
T S Eliot (1888-1965)

A cold coming we had of it.
Just the worst time of year
For a journey and what a long journey,
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter . . .

Full text and recording: Poetry Archive
Dramatized setting of the poem for use in liturgy or assembly

The Magi
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

The Wise Men
GK Chesterton (1874–1936)

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly… it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

The Three Kings
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.

The star was so beautiful, large and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of the night, over hill and dell,
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast,
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.

"Of the child that is born," said Baltasar,
"Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews."

And the people answered, "You ask in vain;
We know of no King but Herod the Great!"
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, who cannot wait.

And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, "Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king."

So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the grey of morn;
Yes, it stopped --it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David, where Christ was born.

And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered the great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.

And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human, but divine.

His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.

They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body's burying.

And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone,
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David's throne.

Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.

Epiphany
Michael Guite ( link to poet's blog and text)

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

Obtaining Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

You can purchase stage prop gold nuggets from Props4Shows.

Frankincense is a type of incense and is available from many online sellers or from church suppliers:
Hayes & Finch
Vanpoulles

Myrrh is an expensive type of incense and can be bought online as a gum resin or as the liquid extract (known as an 'essential oil').

The chemistry of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Downloadable poster

The Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne

Tradition has it that the bones of the three kings are kept in the cathedral at Cologne.

image (left) is from the gold reliquary of the Three Kings and shows them bringing their gifts before the Christ child.

the reliquary of the Three Kings at Cologne

Epiphany Customs from Around the World

As with all the great feasts of the Church's year, folk customs have grown up around the celebration of Christmas and the Epiphany. These domestic devotions make what is being celebrated more understandable and memorable, especially for children.

Germany: Dreikönigstag
The custom in Germany is that of the childrens' festival between January 1-6 (Dreikönigstag = Three Kings Day). After a service at the churches, the children go from house to house to gather offerings for poor children in poor countries. They are dressed as the three kings and carry sticks with stars on the top. At the homes they sing songs and recite messages of Christmas. At each house they paint the letters "20+C+M+B+18" which are for the Latin Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house). At the same time the letters are the first letters of the names of the wise men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

from CatholicCulture.org

Spain and Mexico: Día de Los Reyes

In Spain and Mexico the Day of the Three Kings is the day of which gifts are exchanged rather than on Christmas day.

Russia: The Blessing of Water

In Russia, the ancient link between the Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus is kept by blessing holy water and, for some, by taking a plunge into an icy river or lake!

Russian Christians celebrate Epiphany