Feast of the Epiphany

01-07-2018Weekly Reflection

Where on earth would you go to honor the magi? Iran or Saudi Arabia, Tarshish or the Isles come to mind, but Cologne, Germany would be a good choice. There the Shrine of the Three Kings has been the centerpiece of the city's cathedral since the fourth century. Today it is the largest reliquary in the world: a gilded and ornamented triple casket gleaming high above the altar. In the fourth century, the supposed relics of the wise men were taken from Constantinople to Milan, where they remained until the German Emperor with the unlikely name Frederick Barbarossa (Red Beard) gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. Ever since, pilgrims have streamed into the city to honor the magi, the first of all pilgrims, and thus the heavenly patrons of all who have some holy wanderlust.

This largest Gothic cathedral in Europe today was begun in the mid-1200s to house the relics. In medieval times, the relics in a city's possession were often the key to a sound international economy. The reliquary was last opened in 1864, and the remains of three men were indeed discovered. The cathedral is well worth a visit, with enormous twin spires forming the largest façade of any church in the world (it is the model for St. Patrick's in New York). Construction began in 1248 and ended in 1880, a six-hundred-year project. Today, it is a World Heritage Site, described by the U.N. as "an exceptional work of human creative genius." This great treasure of our tradition suffered fourteen direct bomb hits in World War II but did not collapse. It survived while the city burned around it, preserved, the townspeople say, by three heavenly patrons.