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January 22, 20189416Views

The Symbolism of Epiphany

Andrew Sabisky explores Epiphany's symbolism and its history and parallels in the Christian liturgical calendar

Once upon a time, the primary Churches of God in the West understood that Scripture was to be read like Star Wars. As George Lucas memorably described the prequel trilogy, 'they rhyme. Every stanza, it kinda rhymes with the last one'. It was understood that links of symbolism and allegory tied together the Old Testament and the New, and that almost every word of every text bore rich symbolic fruit beyond its bare literal meaning. Such was the exegetical method of the great Fathers of the Church - not that you would know it from most sermons you will hear today.

So impoverished has the modern churchgoing experience become that even the basic symbolic meaning of such a major feast as the Epiphany of the Lord is probably absent from the minds of even regular, or once-regular, modern Christians. This is probably not helped by countless crib scenes at Christmas services which display the magi as already present. Their arrival at Epiphany, of course, is the Lord’s first appearance to the Gentiles, the first sign that the mission of the Church is to be to all the nations, not merely to the Jews.

Yet even such a great event as this is not the sole focus of the feast; who among today’s churchgoers could tell you that Epiphany traditionally also commemorates Christ’s baptism by John (the primary meaning of the feast in the Eastern churches) and, furthermore, his first miracle at the wedding of Cana? For these too are great occasions in the Scriptures where the glorious divinity of Christ shone forth to all.

The ancient Christian tradition generally held that it was fitting for all the significant events in the life of the Lord to fall on the same dates. For instance, The Annunciation and Passion were traditionally thought to have both occurred on 25th March. Though in the modern calendar this date is typically reserved for Lady Day, honouring the Annunciation, every now and again the two coincide, since Easter is a movable feast. As Eleanor Parker outlines in a marvellous post, medieval writers took this cyclical harmony of sacred time further back into the Old Testament, holding that Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (a prefiguration of the sacrifice of Christ), also occurred on 25th March. As she notes, it is no coincidence either that J.R.R Tolkein’s epic places the destruction of One Ring on this date.

Modern liturgical reforms have regrettably weakened the Christian sense of the beautiful, cyclical harmony of sacred time. Pius XII, in one of his many very bad ideas, removed the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord to the Sunday after Epiphany, greatly weakening the importance of what once was, and rightly should be, one of the greatest feasts in the Church’s calendar.

Yet the symbolism of Epiphany does not end with the commemoration of these different yet related events in the life of Christ. The gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – are themselves richly symbolic: the gold heralds the kingship of Christ, the frankincense his High Priesthood and the myrrh his death and burial. As St Gregory the Great so aptly put it:

'There are some heretics who believe him to be God, but confess not his kingly dominion over all things; these offer unto him frankincense, but refuse him gold. There are some others who admit that he is King, but deny that he is God: these present unto him gold, but will not give him frankincense... There are some other heretics who profess that Christ is both God and King, but not that he took a dying nature; these offer him gold and frankincense, but not myrhh for the Manhood.'

In our own day, how many believers happily acquiesce with the rule of avowedly godless secular states, and so deny Christ his gold!

Gold, a great treasure, represents also the wisdom of God (so Gregory teaches); frankincense, often burned in churches in honour of God, represents prayer and the life of prayer that Christ lived, and myrrh the honour of the death of martyrdom. Therefore the gifts of the Magi signify not just the different types of honour due to God, but also indicate the sort of life of holiness the believer should aspire to.

Even in such an apparently minor detail as the return of the Wise Men to their own country by a different route (having been warned in a dream by an angel not to return to Herod) did the Fathers find great symbolic importance. This return by another path represents, St Gregory continues, the life of the believer, who once he has encountered Christ, cannot continue as before, but must live very differently, walking no longer on the road of pride and worldliness.

One could continue. Much symbolism can be found in the Star that guides the Magi to Christ, or in the eucharistic imagery underpinning the miracle at Cana, where Christ miraculously provided wine to those assembled, prefiguring how later he shall miraculously provide his own blood under the species of wine, or in the nature of Christ’s baptism by John. Perhaps more importantly, however, I shall simply end with a plea not to let our imaginations become impoverished, and with them our faith. We should always be alive, at Epiphany and throughout the liturgical year, to the richness of the layers of meanings with which the Holy Spirit has endowed Scripture. Our neglect of allegory is a modernist error, a folly that cuts us off from the riches of the Church’s intellectual heritage and is a cause of much neglect of and contempt towards the Bible. This Epiphanytide, let us live a faith of eyes that are willing to see.

Andrew Sabisky

Writer on education, politics and defence, researcher and co-host of The Young Tractarians podcast.


Twitter: @AndrewSabisky


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    I appreciate Andrew Sabisky's explanation of the richness of symbolism throughout the Protestant Bible. Having been a Lutheran (now ELCA) much of my life, I can attest that many Lutheran ordained ministers are suffic8iently well educated as to include such things, even extending rarely to numerology (of the non-nutty nature) in their sermons.

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