בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Bārūch atāh Adonai Elohênū melekh ha`ôlām šeheḥeyānû veqîmānû vehigî`ānû lazman hazeh

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season

Saturday, January 6, 2024


The Magi arranged before the Christ Child in our Nativity

Epiphany, or "Three Kings' Day" in Western Christianity," marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The word epiphaneia means "manifestation" in Greek, and it signfies the "striking appearance" or theophany God made flesh in the person of Jesus.  It began to be celebrated on January 6 for several different reasons in early Christianity.  First, before December 25 was settled on as the day of Jesus' birth, some early Christians actually commemorated it in early January.   In Eastern Christianity, it was the day of Jesus' baptism or new birth, when his divine status was attested by the sign of the dove and the voice of God.  But in the Western tradition, it became the day that commemorated the visit of the Magi, to whom Jesus' divinity was made manifest by the star of Bethlehem.

Because the Magi were traditionally Persian wise men, very early Matthew's account of their seeking, finding, and worshipping the Christ Child came to represent how the Lord was made manifest to all nations.

Reading the account of the visit of the Wise Men and singing songs such as "We Three Kings," is a fun, but also potentially thoughtful, way to conclude our Christmas season . . . which we insist on prolonging right through Epiphany.  But reflecting on that episode and some that followed closely after it, such as the the Massacre of the Innocents, can provide opportunities to discuss such issues as why we give gifts at Christmas time, why is there so often sadness in this happy season, and what we can give the Savior.  To this end, I have included between the listing of scriptural accounts and some musical suggestions three excerpts from my Christmas book.

I have also added after the music section a couple of movie ideas, which work well for younger and older children respectively.

Scriptural Accounts (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 97–112, for detailed discussion of each of these episodes)
  • The Story of the Wise Men (Epiphany, Matthew 2:1–12)
  • The Escape into Egypt (2:13–15)
  • The Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16–18) 

The traditional Anglican collect for Epiphany reads as follows:
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know thee now by faith, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Wikimedia Commons)

How the Wise Men Became Kings (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 104) 

Matthew uses the term magoi for the special visitors who come to the child Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Nowhere, however, does he number them, but because he speaks of wise men in the plural, there must have been two or more.  Early artistic representations depict two, three, four, or even as many as twelve wise men visiting the Mother and Child.  The number three seems to have become established because of the number of gifts that they brought.

More interesting is how the Magi came to be viewed as kings.  The possibility of their royalty might have been suggested by their wealth, since gifts they presented Jesus were worthy of a king.  But early Christians seem to have made the connection with royalty as they reflected upon certain Old Testament passages, such as Psalm 69:29 and 72:10, that suggested that kings from among the nations would come to Israel bearing gifts.  Particularly significant, however, were passages from the prophet Isaiah.  Connecting the coming of kings with the light of a rising star, Isaiah 60:3 prophesies “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”  A few verses later some of their gifts, and even the camels that were later assumed to be their conveyance, are mentioned: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

While the various Eastern churches produced a variety of names for the wise men, by the third century the tradition in the West settled on the names Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior for the “kings.”  Eventually the three were associated with different continents and peoples, showing how all the nations of the earth come to honor Jesus.

Farandole (March of the Three Kings) - Mormon Tabernacle Choir

In Connection with the Slaughter of the Innocents: Sadness at Christmastime (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 114) and my Christmas Resource page entry for "Childermas" on December 28.

The grief of the mothers of Bethlehem compels us to face a sad reality: what is such a joyous season for so many is often a cheerless or even depressing time for others.  As Elder Jeffery R. Holland has written, “For many people in many places this may not be an entirely happy Christmas, one not filled with complete joy because of the circumstances facing a spouse or a friend, a child or a grandchild.  Or perhaps that was the case another Christmas in another year, but one which brings a painful annual memory to us yet.”   To the list of those who have lost a loved one or suffered some personal pain, I would add those who are alone, ill, or chronically depressed at Christmastime.  Circumstances beyond our control often weigh heavily upon us, set in sharp contrast by the seeming joy of so many around us.  And sometimes the sadness we feel is simply the regret and letdown that comes when a happy time comes to a necessary end and we are confronted with the monotony or dreary routine of day-to-day living.

In his short book, Shepherds Why This Jubilee, Elder Holland concludes by reflecting on a sad Christmas in his own life, recounting the year his own father suffered a heart attack following surgery right before Christmas.  In the hospital early Christmas morning in 1976, facing the imminent loss of his father, the sound of a newborn baby jolted him out of his sorrow.  Comparing the joy of that baby’s parents to that of Mary and Joseph that first Christmas, Elder Holland considered the great plan of salvation that the Babe of Bethlehem, as the Man on the Cross, would effect for us.  He wrote, “Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together . . . These are God’s gifts to us—birth and life and death and salvation, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.”

Christmas may not always be happy.  But the coming of Jesus into the world that wonderful night made possible the great suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord, which are the true tidings of great joy.  Hopefully we can ameliorate our own sadness by serving and giving to others, lightening their burdens and easing their loneliness.  Ultimately, however, we must with faith lay hold on the promise that joy—true joy without end—often lies ahead.

“Coventry Carol”
This moving carol is one of the only surviving pieces from a medieval cycle of mystery plays that was produced every year by the Shearman and Tailors’ Guild in Coventry, England.  In addition to usual Christmas stories such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi, the guild also produced a scene about the Massacre of the Innocents.  A certain Robert Croo wrote some or all of the play, and hence the lyrics to this song, in A.D. 1534.  The haunting music to which it is now sung was edited and published by Thomas Sharp in A.D. 1825.
In this carol the women of Bethlehem sing to their children, trying to keep them quiet so that the soldiers of King Herod do not hear them.  But the raging king orders his soldiers onward, and in the fourth and final verse the women bewail the death of their children.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day?
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“By, by, lully, lullay.”

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“By, by, lully, lullay.”

Giving Gifts at Christmastime (see Good Tidings of Great Joy, 106–107)

The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the Wise Men to Jesus have served through the centuries as a precedent for the giving of gifts at Christmas.  Today we are moved to give gifts—both presents of worldly things and also gifts of the heart—to those whom we love at this special season.  While we often lose sight of the true purpose of giving, Jesus’ teaching that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40), implicitly suggests that when we love, serve, and give to those whom Christ loves, we are, in fact, giving to him.

Rachel helping Samuel with his lines as one of the three kings
In some cultures the example of the Wise Men is remembered on January 6, or Epiphany, which is celebrated as “Three Kings Day.”  On this occasion children often receive candy and toys in their shoes, which are left out the night before.   But a bigger influence on the tradition of giving gifts in the Christmas season was the legend of St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century bishop in a Roman town in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey.  Although no evidence about Nicholas has survived from the time in which he lived, in the Middle Ages many stories circulated about his famous kindness and generosity.  Because he reputedly saved three young girls by secretly giving them bags of gold, his example became the model for anonymous giving, in line with the Savior’s injunction, “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what they right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3).  Nicholas also became the patron saint of children, and when his relics were moved to Bari in Italy in A.D. 1087, he and his story became part of Western European culture.  Thus his feast day on December 6 became the customary day to give gifts to children, and by the sixteenth century German children were hanging their stockings out on the eve of his feast day for him to fill with presents as he had given bags of gold to the girls at Myra.

The Protestant Reformation disapproved of the veneration of saints, so Martin Luther encouraged another incarnation of the spirit of giving in the form of the Christkindl or “Christ Child.”  Also known as Kris Kringel, this figure gave gifts on either December 25 or New Year’s Day rather than on St. Nicholas’ feast day.  Likewise, Henry VIII is said to have introduced a figure known as “Father Christmas” in England.  The Dutch, however, continued the tradition of St. Nicholas in the form of Sinterklaas, bringing him to New Amsterdam, later New York.  Through the writings of Washington Irving in 1809 and an anonymous 1823 poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (later known as “The Night before Christmas” and attributed to Clement Clarke Moore), “Santa Claus” became an important fixture in American Christmases, from where he has spread around the world.

While we continue to give gifts to our loved ones openly at Christmastime and receive them in turn, there is something about the spirit of Santa Claus that continues to reflect and add to the joy of the Christmas season.  As famously expressed in a New York Sun editorial on September 21, 1897, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy . . . he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”   Similarly, LDS story teller George Durrant has written, “There really is a Santa Claus.  A Santa who knows that one of the happiest things we can do at Christmastime is to give something to someone without telling him who gave it . . . A Santa who enjoys getting the blame for things that make Christmas a time for little ones to have a full measure of Christmas joy.”

But in the midst of both known and anonymous gift giving at Christmastime, for believers the ultimate gift remains the tidings of great joy that come from knowing that God gave us his Son at Christmas time—and that Christ loved us so much that he suffered and gave his life for us.

My creche at work

Music for Epiphany

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., wrote "We Three Kings" in 1857, and it became one of the first carols written in the United States to achieve widespread popularity.  Although it is based upon the traditional identification of the magi with "three kings," a tradition that developed rather late, it seems particularly appropriate for a family celebration of Epiphany, especially if there are small children.

Other musical suggestions include Mack Wilberg's processional "Carol to the King."

Connected with idea of giving the Babe of Bethlehem gifts is the beautiful rendition of a Catalonian carol that Mack Wilberg published as "What Shall We Give the Babe in the Manger" in 2001.  Then associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Dr. Wilberg published this setting of the traditional Catalonian carol with an English paraphrase by David Warner.   The lyrics by Warner movingly connect the visit of the Wise Men at the birth of Jesus with the rest of the Savior’s ministry and with his saving death and resurrection. 

The first verse finds us with the Magi approaching the Baby, wondering what can be an appropriate gift from us. The second verse moves through Jesus’ boyhood and ministry, seeing him as the boy in the temple and the man teaching and working miracles by the Sea of Galilee.  The verse concludes with Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday before carrying his cross on Good Friday.  Following a reflection on his resurrection in the third verse, the song resolves that the only fitting gift that any of us can give the Savior are tears for his mercy and love.
What shall we give to the Babe in the manger?
What shall we offer the Child in the stall?
Incense and spices and gold we’ve a-plenty.
Are these the gifts for the King of us all?

What shall we give to the Boy in the temple?
What shall we offer the Man by the sea?
Palms at his feet and hosannas uprising,
Are these for him who will carry the tree?

What shall we give to the Lamb who was offered,
Rising the third day and shedding His Love?
Tears for his mercy we’ll weep at the manger,
Bathing the Infant come down from above.

Movies and Stories great for Epiphany
  • "The Little Drummer Boy," a Christmas classic, is great for families with small children both because of the supporting role of the three kings but even more so because the drummer boy learns about true giving and the power of love.
  • "The Other Wise Man," a wonderful story by Henry Van Dyke, is a good story to read together or to watch as a DVD production (for example, as "The Fourth Wise Man"). 

Christmas Quick Links