Scripture Readings: Book of the Prophet Isaiah 60:1-6; Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 2:1-12
The Solemnity of the Epiphany, literally the “manifestation” or “showing” of the Lord Jesus Christ to the nations, is something of a study in contrasts. On the one hand there are some magi, the actual number of them we do not know, though tradition holds that there were three, by mention of three gifts they offer the Lord: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In contrast to the magi is King Herod. The magi come from afar, guided by dreams and a star, from pagan lands, but obviously the magi are aware of the coming of a Messiah, perhaps having been told about this by Jewish exiles. In any case, the magi were sincere seekers, albeit imperfect ones, who in their search draw closer to the center of the Jewish faith.
Ultimately, though, the magi realize that the center of faith and worship is not to be located in any earthly king, nor even in a particular place on earth, but only in God. Wherever God’s people are, God is also present. That is the definition of the name of our God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The coming of gift-bearing foreigners made Herod, King of Judea, and all Jerusalem, upset and fearful. Could there be a king more powerful than Herod, and in the midst of the people? A new way of life was unfolding and Herod would do whatever he needed to in order that it be stopped, but he failed miserably in his attempts, for nothing can stop God!
Foreign astrologers or priests of ancient Persia (present day Iran), the magi (our word “magic” is derived from the same root), and Scripture does not indicate that they were kings, though that is often how they are referred to, ultimately come to meet, and fall down in worship, before the true King of kings and Lord of all nations and times, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the human race.
Gift giving at Christmastime has its origin in the gift-bearing magi. They offered gifts of gold, fit for a king; frankincense, given to a deity; and myrrh, used in burial rights, for one who is going to die. Clearly these are mystical and symbolic of the newborn King, who is God and man, and who will undergo death for the life of the world.
Regarding this great feast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:
“In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospels see the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that the full number of the nations now takes its place in the family of the patriarchs, and acquires Israelitica dignitas (that is, are made worthy of the heritage of Israel” (CCC, number 528).
The Church Father, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, Saint Peter Chrysologus, who died around the year 450 AD wrote:
“Today the magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, the magi believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die” (Sermon 160).
May we be given humble hearts to recognize Christ, the one true King, who is in our midst, and be open to receive the gifts God has in store for us. May we open our hearts in giving to others, not necessarily material gifts, but those of much more value: peace, patience, forgiveness, kindness, and all the rest that we love and deeply desire to receive from others as well.
Blessed and Happy Epiphany of the Lord, Light of the Nations!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB