Celebrating the feast of the Epiphany in Spain

In many European countries, the feast of the Epiphany is still celebrated on its traditional date of Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas, and is not transferred to a Sunday liturgy as it is in other places. Thus, the eve of Jan. 5 often brings celebrations and events marking the visit of the “kings” to the infant Jesus. This year, I was lucky enough to enjoy the events with loved ones in Alcudia, Spain.

Los Reyes Magos de Oriente” (“The three wisemen/kings/astrologers of the East”) are of course those mentioned in Matthew 2: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’”

Notice that it nowhere says there were specifically three visitors, nor the child’s exact age when they came. The “three” comes later in the narrative in terms not of people but of gifts: the symbolic presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later traditions will even give names to these mysterious gift-bearers: Melchior, Casper and Balthasar. The notion that they are kings comes not from the infancy narrative itself, but from the prediction in the psalms: “The kings of Tarshish and the islands will pay homage to him; the kings of Sheba and Arabia bring him gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service” (Ps 72:10-11).

The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word for “manifestation,” as the child was revealed in this moment as the light to the nations (lumen gentium). It is closely related to the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, where the Lord’s status as the Messiah is affirmed by the voice from the heavens and his death is prefigured in the submergence in the waters, the celebration of which marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmas.

In Spain, the event is marked all around the country by enormous “cabalgatas” or cavalcades. The one in Alcudia was truly a breathtaking spectacle, with elaborate floats and feathered fan-bearers and costumed Roman and Arabian courtiers on horseback preceding them. The kings arrived with flowing beards and sumptuous cloaks and glittering crowns, and disembarked to pay homage to the Holy Family, in this case positioned between decorated palm trees inside the ancient gate to the city, which dates to the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean at the time of the actual events being venerated. Children cheered and collected candies thrown from the procession, while fireworks exploded into the brisk night sky with choruses singing that the Lord will reign forever. As the younger children returned home to wait for their gifts or candy coal in the morning of Jan. 6, Mallorcan adults toasted one another for hours in the streets and cafes wishing one another “Molts D’Anys,” local dialect for “many years” i.e., of life and prosperity.

As I leave Spain for meetings next week in Rome, I feel blessed as the chair of Loyola’s Institute of Pastoral Studies’ Global Engagement Committee to be given the opportunity to experience the universal character of the Catholic faith, always expressed in extremely local contexts that develop rhythms and emphases all their own. The familiar nostalgia that surrounds a family saying grace at a Thanksgiving table with American football in the background feels as foreign to the Spaniards in my life (“I don’t know why it’s turkey, I guess the Pilgrims?”) as do their grapes at midnight on New Year’s eve and Cabalgatas de los Reyes to me. And yet, these experiences reinforce the unity and catholicity of the church, where the Lord both blesses and “manifests” himself to us always and only in and through culture. He is the Lord of the living and not merely of the dead precisely because he is also the Lord of History, whose currents carry us forward toward our shared and common “true native land to be,” as O Salutaris Hostia puts it.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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