Still proceeding to honor the Magi on the 12th day


Don't put away those manger scenes yet. The 12 days of Christmas, which began Dec. 25, don't officially conclude until the Feast of the Three Kings on Jan. 6, the traditional date for the wise men, or Magi, to arrive.

Several Howard County Christian churches have traditional, and nontraditional, Epiphany customs. At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ellicott City, the wise men arrived a little early. The weekend before Christmas, the church held a pageant. Members of the parish took turns playing the roles of prophets, shepherds and the three wise men.

James Gartside of Jessup, who was among the Magi, said the wise men were familiar figures in Old Testament and other prophecies about a coming Messiah and connected those with astrological events. "They knew the signs," he said. "They recognized that Jesus is our Lord and Savior."

In the United States, Christmas celebrations overshadow the Epiphany - it is a more significant festival in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and in Latin America. However, the two holy days are related. While Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, the Epiphany signifies what his birth means - Jesus' role as Savior.

"That's what Epiphany means, an event of great importance," said George Martin, president of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry. "That day was effectively like Christmas because it was the manifestation of Jesus to the world."

Translations of the Greek word epiphaneia range from "to reveal" and "manifestation" to "appearance." In English, the term has come to signify a discovery or realization.

The Epiphany can be found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The realization in the Gospels is that the Magi, who were foreigners and non-Jews, recognize Jesus as Lord and king. They represent the idea that his message will reach the whole world.

Although the number of Magi does not appear in the Scriptures, they usually are depicted as a group of three because of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that they carried. The traditional names of the Magi, who later came to be seen as kings, are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Details like these, and that the three gifts might have been bartered to help the Holy Family escape danger, were added to the Epiphany story as it was passed from generation to generation and depicted in works of art.

The three gifts were common items to take on a journey because they were tradable goods. But they also have symbolic meanings. Gold, a gift given to royalty, signifies Jesus as king. Frankincense, which was used in worship practices, stands for his divinity. Because myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial, it represents Jesus as a man who would die.

Gift-giving during the Christmas season is meant to honor and emulate the wise men. But there are a variety of other traditions surrounding Monday's Feast of the Epiphany.

One custom, according to the Rev. Richard Tillman of St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, is "a tradition of going around and blessing homes. ... The ritual is with a small piece of chalk that you inscribe on the home, '20+CMB+03' - the number of the New Year and the initials 'CMB' are in the middle."

Not only do the initials stand for the names of the Magi, Tillman said, they also signify a Latin prayer, "Christus Mansionem Benedicat," which means "May Christ Bless This Dwelling."

The Orthodox Christian Church of St. Mathews in Wilde Lake also has a tradition of blessing homes. Children carry candles and sing hymns while each room is sprinkled with holy water blessed during the Epiphany.

A less traditional custom will be the "Taste of St. John's" potluck dinner, which will be held Sunday at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Columbia. Parishioners from at least 50 ethnic backgrounds will share dishes from their cultures.

"The three kings represented people from far away - the idea is to emphasize that here at St. John's we have people from all over the country and all over the world," said Kathie Armstrong, parish secretary.

Because the Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season, Jan. 6 is the traditional date to put away Christmas decorations.

So next week is the time to take down the lights and ornaments, and pack those wise men and the family creche until they visit next year.

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