In the fourth century, Christians across the Eastern and Western Mediterranean began celebrating the Epiphany, God's manifestation in Jesus' early life, during the darkest time of the year. Perhaps they chose that time because others had long celebrated the triumph of light over darkness around the winter solstice. Christians in the West eventually separated their feast days for Jesus' birth, the magi's visit, and his baptism. That is why many Catholic and Protestant communities celebrate the magi's visit to the child Jesus, when they do him homage as king, on Jan. 6 (or on Sunday that week). Christians in the East continued celebrating those events more closely together, some in a single feast. That is why many Orthodox communities celebrate John's baptism, when a voice from the heavens calls Jesus the son of God, on that date.
With the feast of the Epiphany, Christians mark Jesus' humanity, divinity and kingship through story, gift-giving and food. In light of Matthew's gospel, they retell the story of the magi who embark on a journey from the East following a star in search of the newborn king. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they asked King Herod, the chief priests and scribes where he might be found. Their reading of the prophets and the star pointed the magi to Bethlehem. When the magi found Jesus and Mary at their house, they were overjoyed, did him homage, and gifted him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The magi's gift-giving is at the heart of a beautiful tradition that many Latinx children in San Diego enjoy. Wednesday morning, they excitedly look for a small gift the magi left inside or next to one of their shoes. While Matthew's gospel doesn't specify the number of magi, or wise men, who visited Jesus, Christians worldwide have developed many traditions about their number, the meaning of their gifts and their origin. Some Christians in the East set the number at 12. Another tradition, loved by Catholics and Protestants alike, puts it at three — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — because each one comes bearing a gift: myrrh, a medicinal analgesic that points to Jesus' humanity; frankincense, an aromatic resin that points to his divinity, and gold, which speaks to his kingship. And as beautiful as those interpretations are, with many parents, I can also imagine Joseph and Mary welcoming gifts of medicine and money that will undoubtedly come in handy to care for their infant. Matthew's gospel is also silent on the magi's origins. Yet Christians have developed multiple traditions that point to their fundamental belief that the compassionate God who Jesus manifests embraces all peoples. Some speculate they came from present-day Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Others have them coming from each of the continents of the old world: Asia, Africa and Europe.
Latinx communities also celebrate the Epiphany with a rosca de reyes or kings' bread. In a tradition that remains faithful to the joy of the magi's visit and the heartbreak that came at its end, we gather with friends and family — perhaps by Zoom or other online means during the pandemic — to cut a rosca, inside which a baker has hidden an infant-shaped figurine, to remember Jesus' experience as a refugee. In Matthew's gospel, after their visit, the magi and Joseph received warnings of impending danger in separate dreams. Soon after, the magi departed without telling Herod where they found the child. Joseph fled with his family to Egypt in the dead of night, hidden by the dark. When Herod heard the magi left without disclosing the child's location, he ordered all boys 2 years of age and under in the vicinity killed. To this day, the memory of that hidden infant and the death of those innocents sustains many who escape their homelands seeking safety as strangers in a new land. Their experiences echo those of the compassionate God manifested in Jesus' early life.
Affirming hope when it is darkest is a dangerous thing. It is tempting to see it as a shining light and nothing more. As the magi and Jesus' family witness, hope is demanding. Hope turns our gaze not just inward but outward, more so in the face of injustice. It moves us to be a gift to others, more so in the darkest of times. The pandemic, worsened by our society's inequalities, has touched many in our families and communities. May the hope of a compassionate God move and inspire us all to face the demanding work that awaits us.
Victor Carmona is assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. He lives in La Mesa.