Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ manifestation to the world, for that is what Epiphany (ἐπιφάνεια) means: manifestation. We commonly associate three events with Epiphany: the visit of the Magi to the boy Jesus, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and the wedding at Cana. Though these events naturally span almost three decades, they are tied together in that they are visible manifestations of Christ to the world. In the historic lectionary that we use, we are given to celebrate all three of these events separately: the baptism of Jesus next Sunday on the octave of the Epiphany, and the wedding at Cana the Sunday following on Epiphany 2. That leaves the arrival of the Magi as the primary focus for today—a focus that is echoed in the German word for Epiphany, Dreikönigstag: Three Kings’ Day.
Perhaps the theology of Epiphany is best expressed in the Sequence for today, though it uses different events to capture the same meaning. It references the slaughter of the Holy Innocents: most certainly a manner in which “Christ’s appearing was made known.” The most brilliant connection, however, comes towards the end, where the Father’s voice from heaven “relents from His censure and grief that He had made humanity” and declares Jesus to be His true Son. This poignant moment recalls how the Father actually regretted that He had made man (Gen. 6:6) and sent the great Flood to wipe out the crown of His creation, saving only righteous Noah and his family, eight souls in all. Just as Pentecost undoes the tower of Babel, so does the baptism of Jesus undo the damage of the Flood, giving us kinship with Jesus in the second, greater Flood of Holy Baptism, by which we receive His inheritance of eternal life.
Jacob Handl sets the extra-biblical text Ab Oriente venerunt Magi, which details the significance of the Magi’s gifts to Jesus: gold as to His kingship, incense as to His priesthood, and myrrh to foreshadow His burial (as Jn. 19:39–40 tells us, He was buried with fully 75 pounds of myrrh supplied by Nicodemus). The piece, largely serene in nature, closes with a jubilant alleluia that springs forth seemingly from nowhere.
“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” has been appointed universally as the chief hymn for Epiphany almost from the time it was written by Philipp Nicolai in 1597. It is considered “the queen of chorales,” second only to “Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying” (also by Nicolai). The two stanzas of this hymn as sung by the choir today are by Michael Praetorius, who produced an absurd amount of Lutheran music for every conceivable combination of voices and instruments in a vast array of styles. Today’s two Praetorius settings of “O Morning Star” contrast sharply with each other, and therein are representative of his variety. The two soprano lines in stanza 2 depict the soul as Christ’s bride, as reflected in the text; and the rich, five-voice texture in stanza 5 rejoices in eternal life, particularly at the final line.
The association of “O Morning Star” with Epiphany transcends Lutheranism and Germany, so much so that it is quoted in many Epiphany pieces by non-Lutheran and non-German composers. One of these composers is Peter Cornelius, who wrote “The Three Kings” as a solo song accompanied by piano. “O Morning Star” forms the accompaniment to the voice, which sings of the Magi and their journey to Bethlehem. It has been arranged for solo voice and chorus several times; today we hear it with solo baritone backed up by strings and choir, the latter singing the words to “O Morning Star.”
J.S. Bach’s aria “Jesu, laß dich finden” comes from BWV 154, a cantata depicting the story in the boy Jesus’ life when His parents lost Him in Jerusalem (Lk. 2:41–52). At that time, He was found in His Father’s house; and now likewise He is found in those things that are His Father’s—namely, the Word and Sacraments, and the baptized faithful who gather in His name. This aria is prayer that, on this day when we celebrate Christ’s manifestation to us and to all people, we would not lose Him behind the clouds of our sins.
Though born into a prominent Jewish family, Felix Mendelssohn converted to Lutheranism and produced wonderful sacred music, including several relatively obscure, yet brilliant, motets. The music we hear today comes from an unfinished oratorio, “Christus”—Mendelssohn only managed to finish the part concerning the Magi and a portion of the Passion. The solo soprano serves as the narrator, announcing the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, at which point three men sing a delightful trio accompanied by the lower strings: “Say! Where is He born, the King of Judea? For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him.” This is followed by the famous chorus, “There shall a star come out of Jacob,” quoting Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17–19:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel… And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!
Mendelssohn sets this prophecy in the voices over a quietly undulating accompaniment, and the whole composition ebbs and flows in Mendelssohn’s characteristic way. “O Morning Star” appears at the end, tying the prophecy directly to Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles.