The name of this Feast of our Lord – “Epiphany” – is derived from a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearing.
Historically, Anglican Prayer Books have interpreted the name with a subtitle, “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The last phrase is, of course, a reference to the narrative of the Wise Men, the Magi, who appeared in Judaea from the East in order to worship the newborn King of the Jews.
This visit, probably by Persian Magi, is responsible for the Feast of the Epiphany being the culmination and conclusion of the Birth Narrative of Jesus, and thereby also of the season of Christmastide. Also known, in some traditions, as the “Three Sacred Kings,” these mysterious visitors from the East are often named as Caspar (or Gaspar), Balthazar, and Melchior, although those names do not appear in the canonical Scriptures, and are reported as having brought symbolically significant, as well as valuable, gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This is how they are often described (“All About the Wise Men”):
Gaspar (or Caspar), who has brown hair and a brown beard (or no beard at all), wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. He is sometimes identified as the King of Sheba. Gaspar represents the Frankincense brought to Jesus.
Melchior, who has long white hair and a white beard and wears a gold cloak, is said represent the King of Arabia. Melchior represents the Gold brought to Jesus.
Balthazar, who has black skin and a black beard (or no beard!) and wears a purple cloak; he is said to be the King of Tarsish and Egypt. Balthazar represents the gift of Myrrh that was brought to Jesus.
These three sacred “Kings” or Magi are often given Oriental, Caucasian, and African features, and thus collectively represent all the peoples of the world. The gifts also have symbolic meaning, as explained in the song, “We Three Kings (of Orient Are)”:
“Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again: King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign!”
“Frankincense to offer have I: incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising, all men raising, worship him: God most high!”
“Myrrh I bring, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom: suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb!”
Later in the song, these mystic significances are once again reinforced:
“Glorious now behold Him arise: King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, alleluia! Earth to heav’n replies.”
But there are also two other occurrences which have traditionally been linked to this Feast, through the concept of Christ being made manifest to the Gentiles (“Peoples” or “Nations”): the Wedding at Cana, in which he turned the water into wine, and his Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and his Father’s voice boomed from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son: listen to him!”
A feast of many facets, and much significance.