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Is Epiphany about pageants?

"Les rois mages en voyage" (Journey of the Magi) by James Tissot. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
"Les rois mages en voyage" (Journey of the Magi) by James Tissot. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In Christian churches around the world, whenever Epiphany is celebrated, it is common for there to be some kind of a pageant. The pageant in Western Christian traditions, including The United Methodist Church, usually involves a procession in worship.  In some places, especially in Hispanic-Latino cultures, observances also include a parade in the streets and other celebrations featuring three people dressed as the “Tres Reyes Magos” or the “Three Kings,” often handing out candy or small gifts. Whether as procession, parade, or party, these observances remind of the journey of the Magi from “the East” to bring homage and gifts to the home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Palestine.

The song “We Three Kings” was written as a musical accompaniment for such a pageant in worship. In some versions of these pageants, the three represent three different people groups (Middle Eastern, African and Asian), and in several they have specific names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In the Epiphany tradition of chalking the door of homes and businesses, the initials CMB reflect both these names and the Latin phrase, “Christe mansionem benedicat” (may Christ bless the dwelling).

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In the Orthodox churches, Epiphany (or Theophany, as they name it) is less about the journey of the magi and more about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Orthodox Theophany processions lead the faithful (and, in Orthodox countries, often public officials, as well) to a nearby body of water (a river, lake or sea) to bless the water. In some of these traditions, a cross is cast into the water, and a contest is held to see who can swim out and reach it first.

Across the whole of historic Christianity, West and East, Epiphany (or Theophany) is observed with some kind of pageant, a dramatic procession full of solemnity, celebration and joy.

So, is Epiphany about the pageants? Not really. Instead, pageants have been a persistent way in which Christians of many cultures have embodied and borne witness to what the observance of this day is about. Whether the procession commemorates the journey of the magi or the journey of Jesus to his baptism, each especially celebrates manifestations in the heavens of the presence of the Son of God on earth. In the story of the magi, commemorated in the West, their journey takes place because they have seen some alignment of stars and planets in the night sky that indicate to them the birth of a new king in Judea. In the baptism story, commemorated in the East, a voice from the sky declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” after the baptism of Jesus.

Observing Epiphany or Epiphany Sunday with pageantry, whether in worship, in public or both, is one way for the church to join the heavens in declaring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (Psalm 19:1, 2 Corinthians 4:6).

This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.