My wife and I just returned from celebrating the Epiphany in Old Town Kraków. Throughout Poland, the Epiphany is celebrated with a procession of the Magi or Three Kings to the newborn King of the Jews and his mother, to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We arrived a little late but joined the procession following Balthazar as he made his way, guided by the Star of the King of the Jews, down Floriańska Street to the Main Square. The Epiphany is a national holiday in Poland, so many people joined the procession despite the cold rain. The journey through the streets of Kraków ended with an encounter with Christ and his Church, a fitting way to end a feast that celebrates the manifestation of God (theophany) in history.
This is my second time celebrating the Epiphany in Poland. My first time was in my wife’s hometown years ago, and I am still as impressed now as I was then. I never grew up with anything like it. The Christmas season always seems to come to an abrupt close by New Year’s Day in America. But in Poland it continues, as it should, according to the Liturgical Year.
My first impression celebrating the Epiphany in Poland was just how effective a catechesis the celebrations are not only for children, but also adults. Walking with the Magi as they follow the Star to the newborn King, the Light of the Nations, in Bethlehem to worship him with gifts is a dramatic way of participating in the Epiphany. It is also a liturgical lens through which we can see ourselves and the cosmos. The journey of the Magi should teach us to see ourselves as liturgists, discerning and following the liturgical symbols of the cosmos to commune with and offer praise to the Creator who surprisingly manifests himself in the humblest of forms (epiphanos in Greek means manifestation). Yet the fittingness of God manifesting himself as a baby lying in an animal trough in Bethlehem (“house of bread” in Hebrew) comes to light in the Eucharist. Thus, could the story of the Magi really be an allegory of the Mass?
This way of viewing the Epiphany became manifest to me as I processed up to the altar for communion during the Mass that concluded the festivities. I thought of stars as meaningful signs and guides, even a star assigned to a newborn King of the Jews. I thought too of the worthiness of a messianic newborn king lying in a manger; prophecy about the location of his birth being in a lowly but royal town that literally means “house of bread”; the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh — mystical gifts that identify the baby as the God-King destined to die; dreams interpreted as heavenly warnings, and more. The story of the Magi is therefore more than just an allegory for the Mass. The richness of the story comes to light from the eyes of faith and a Christian sacramental worldview, i.e. seeing the physical world as an irradiation of the spirit redeemed under the Lordship of the Christ. Children intuitively see the world as “charged with the grandeur of God". At least, I did. However, now I must remind myself to see all things in this way.
When I was a child, life was full of enchantment. Everything radiated the grandeur of God. The ditch next to my parent’s house was a river of life. The hill up the street was a roller coaster when riding my bike. Even my twin sister and I called my parents’ staircase “the waterfall”, rolling down its carpeted steps as if it was a slippery slide. To quote Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a star was not merely “a huge ball of flaming gas” but a spiritual entity. Everything was an icon of a reality imbued with meaning and significance. We were not little animists or New Agers worshiping the creature but almost like little Magi. But over the years I seem to have lost that sensibility or perhaps it has migrated to something else.
Growing up in the West, I became accustomed to sensing enchantment in Mammon. And although I do not have much money, it nevertheless has magical glory to it. A vivid memory of one of my first initiations into the world of Mammon stands out to me. It is when my dad took me to his work at the Amoco Building in downtown Chicago. Getting off the train at Union Station and joining a stream of people rushing through the streets and up to the various heavenly towers of business to make money put me into religious awe. It was almost liturgical. I felt like I was participating in a higher purpose that bestowed value and dignity, making its possessor a “son of God”. Now whenever I see the new corporate skyscrapers going up in Poland, I am reminded of my semi-religious experience in Chicago years ago. But these temples illuminating the skylines of today’s metropolises of business in green light close us off to the stars above, stars that can illumine for us the true power of the cosmos and guide us beyond our various idolatries and to the penniless newborn King who alone deserves praise.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a reminder for us to ask for the grace to follow the Magi and see how the Incarnation has changed everything.