Originally, 6 January was the date of the celebration of the birth and baptism of Jesus in those parts of the early church where 6 January was reckoned as the winter solstice. The western church, following a different calendar, observed the feast of the birth on 25 December. By a process of mutual influencing, the east adopted 25 December to celebrate the birth of Jesus and kept 6 January to celebrate the baptism. The western church, by about the fifth century, extended the celebrations of the birth to include “the twelve days of Christmas”, culminating on 6 January with the celebration of the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12). It is only very recently that the baptism of Jesus has been observed in the west, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany.
In Matthew’s time the major thrust of the church’s mission was directed towards the Gentiles. Jewish Christians were no longer welcome in the synagogues. So, a strong indicator near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel of the future Gentile mission is not surprising. Although many Jews lived in dispersion in the east, the wise men are plainly presented as Gentiles: they ask for the “king of the Jews”. Their pagan wisdom evidently included astrology. As Gentiles, they have received revelation through nature. Like their precursor Balaam, who foresaw in his vision the rising messianic star (Numbers 24:17), they perceive some significance in the star of the Jewish king. But the star alone is not enough; they have to learn the secret of Jesus’ birthplace from the Jewish Scriptures (through Herod and his council), that it is from Bethlehem that the ruler will come (Micah 5:12).
While Herod’s promise to come and worship the child is treacherous, the wise men of the Gentiles pay him true homage, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh in accordance with Scripture (cf. Isaiah 60:6; Song of Solomon 3:6). Later it was assumed that the visitors from Sheba (Isaiah 60:6) fulfilled also the words of Psalm 72:10-11, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring their gifts. May all kings fall prostrate before him.” The number of their gifts suggested there were three. So three kings from the east become the first to have worshipped the king in whom God was made manifest.
Today sees the beginning of the end of the Christmas season. We in New Zealand tend to celebrate Christmas from the beginning of December till Christmas Day. Our European ancestors began their celebrations on Christmas Eve, and kept them up till the twelfth day after Christmas. The theme of Epiphany is manifestation or revelation: principally the revelation of God in Christ to the Gentiles.
Light has dawned for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. Psalm 97:11