The word "Epiphany" is one of the few technical religious words which is also used in modern everyday English. In English, we use the word "epiphany" to name that moment when we realise something which we'd not previously spotted. An "oh, that's what's going on" moment. But in the liturgical calendar, Epiphany is the correct name for the twelfth day of Christmas, the sixth of January.
In certain traditions -- the country in which I live, for one -- the big day of celebration during the season just closing is on Christmas day itself. In other traditions -- in much of Scandinavia, for example, and inside my own head -- Christmas eve is the greater festival. But in other traditions -- particularly amongst the orthodox communities -- it is Epiphany which is the larger festival.
Today's the day when we remember the visit of the Magi to the holy family. Wise men from the East, sometimes supposed to be of the Zoroastrian faith, who had read a prediction that a child would be born to become a king who would take the nation of Israel out of slavery, and to be a light to all the nations.
We don't know how many of these wise men there were, but there are popularly supposed to have been three of them to coincide in number with the gifts they brought with them -- Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
Gold, because the new child was to become a king, in accordance with the prophecy. Gold was the royal metal, the symbol of the new child's Kingly nature. To signify that this was more than just a carpenter's child. To bear witness to what he was to do.
Frankincense, because the new child was also, in very nature, God. Incense was burnt to bring honour and glory to the Most high, a symbol of the new child's Godly nature. To signify that this was more than just a baby. To bear witness to what he really was.
And Myrrh, because the new child was born to die. Myrrh was, and is, a spice used to embalm the dead, a symbol of the new child's destiny as a sacrifice. To signify that this story was going to end in a way that no-one was expecting. To bear witness so powerfully that, two thousand years later, people look at the third gift and say to themselves "oh, that's what's going on".
And did she see there, in the straw by his head, a thorn?
And did she smell myrrh in the air on that starry night?
And did she hear angels sing not so far away,
Till at last the sun rose blood-red in the morning sky?
Graham Kendrick (song, lyrics)
Full set of [LC] posts here.