The Epiphany of the Lord (Year A)
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6 Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6 Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
“LORD, ALL THE NATIONS WILL ADORE YOU.”
A little boy returned from Sunday school with a new perspective on the Christmas story. He had learned all about the Wise Men from the East who brought gifts to the Baby Jesus. He was so excited that he could hardly wait to tell his parents.
As soon as he arrived home, he immediately began, “I learned all about the very First Christmas in Sunday school today! There wasn’t a Santa Claus way back then, so these three skinny guys on camels had to deliver all the toys!”
He further continued, “And Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with his nose so bright also wasn’t there yet, so they had to have this big spotlight in the sky to find their way around!”
Today, we solemnly celebrate the feast of “The Epiphany of the Lord,” and this is the last Sunday of the Christmas season. Now, the word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word 'Epiphania' meaning 'revelation,' or 'manifestation.' According to the tradition, “The Epiphany of the Lord” signifies - specifically the manifestation of the Christ child to the entire world. The feast is based on one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament, of the visit of the Magi (Wise Men), shortly after the birth of Jesus, reported in the Gospel of Matthew: “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” The Magi followed the star which led them to Bethlehem. There they found the Christ child, did him homage and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Magi represent the non-Jewish world – they represent us. Their arrival on the scene shows, as it were, that the Savior born in Bethlehem comes not just for one people, but for all peoples, all races – of all times and places. And we joyfully proclaim, “Lord, all the nations will adore you.”
Surely, one of the great stories of Christmas is the story of the visit of the Magi from the East. Wherever the story of the birth of Jesus is told, so too is told this delightful tale of strange men from some faraway land who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The story comes to us only in Matthew's Gospel and its enigmatic nature stems from its brevity. Matthew apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were.
But who were they? We do not know a great deal about these Wise men, for very few details are given about these men in the Scripture. Most of our ideas about them actually come from tradition or speculation. They are really known as 'The Magi' or 'The Wise Men' in the scriptures. They seem to have been the priest-kings and the scholars of their day. They suddenly glide into the Christmas story, pay their homage to the newborn king of the Jews, offer their gifts to him and silently slip away.
We do not know how many of them there were; but it is generally assumed three, since they brought three gifts. We don't know the names of these Wise men. According to medieval legends, the three Wise men were named Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar - but we really don't know their names.
Also, we aren't sure just exactly what nation they came from. They came from the East, verse 1 says. Tradition holds each of them came from a different culture: Melchior was Asian, Balthazar was Persian and Caspar was Ethiopian - thus representing the three races known to the ancient world.
So, why does Matthew tell the story in the way he does? What is Matthew trying to tell us here? And what is it about Matthew's story of the Magi that has so captured the imagination of the Church in a way that the shepherds in Luke's Gospel have not? What is the point of this remarkable story of the coming of the wise men from the East? There are four key elements in the story: the journey of the Magi, following the star, the gifts they bring and their return by a different way.
a) The journey of the Magi:
The story of the Magi focuses on their long journey, seeking the Savior of the world. They placed their time, talent, and treasure at the service of their mission. Their journey of a thousand miles or more westward from their countries in the East which could have taken almost three months is really a symbol of the inward journey they made in their hearts, a journey from paganism to belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. As a matter of fact, it was a journey of their faith, for it was through the grace of God that the Wise men were led to faith in Jesus.
Christian life, the life of God's people, is most often represented in the Bible and in literature, as a journey – a journey that begins with our confession of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and ends when we at last meet him and the Father, face to face, in God's heavenly kingdom.
Indeed, it is not just the Wise men but all of us who are on a journey to get closer to Jesus our Savior. We each have a journey to make to Jesus because none of us is yet fully converted and each of us has corners in our hearts and lives in need of Jesus’ healing and redemption.
Again, like the Wise men, we too have to rely on the grace of God to lead us to the light of Jesus our Savior. And when we seek God with sincere determination like the Wise men, we too will find him, for he is not hiding from us, but wants to have an intimate relationship with each of us.
b) Following the star:
There is talk of the Magi following the star that led them to the manifestation of the Christ child. They saw a star rising in the east and recognized that a new king had been born and came to visit him. Was there indeed at this time a comet or supernova or some significant conjunction of planets which would be particularly meaningful to these men? Even so, how does one follow a star? Have you ever tried? How do you know when a star is 'over the place' you are looking for? You could travel several hundred miles and the star could still be 'over' you. Probably, we are wasting our time looking for some significant stellar happening. The star is rather to be seen as a symbol: 'A light representing Jesus as the Light of the whole world.'
This light is the theme of Isaiah the prophet in our First Reading of today: “Jerusalem,” he cries out, “your light has come: in the midst of darkness and thick clouds covering the earth, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” For the people of Israel, then in exile in a foreign land, Isaiah was promising redemption, renewal and a new life, restored to their own land. And the promise goes beyond the Jewish people, to all peoples. For the Prophet says, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” So, when the Magi see the star, they head out for Jerusalem. A promise made hundreds of years before, comes to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
'The Star of Bethlehem,' shines brightly over us. It is now our star. That star will lead others who search for him to cross our paths. We have been enlightened by Christ and empowered with the mission of Epiphany, to make his glory manifest. We are called to be light for others, to be Christmas stars for those whose hearts still seek. “Lord, all the nations will adore you.”
c) The gifts given:
The Magi went to great lengths to find the "King of the Jews" and "do him homage." As part of that homage they offered their gifts of 'gold, frankincense and myrrh.' These gifts seem inspired by Isaiah 60:6 quoted in today's First Reading, "They shall bring gold and frankincense."
For century upon century, the preachers and teachers of the Church have focused their attention on the gifts brought by the Magi. For Matthew, the gifts of the Magi point to who Christ is. These three gifts presented by the Magi to the Child Jesus, reveal in a way his identity. The legendary visit would later give rise to the custom of gift-giving at Christmas.
Early interpreters suggested that the gold offered to Christ was symbolic of what one did in ancient times to offer tribute at the reign of a new King; The gift of gold therefore symbolizes 'the kingship of Christ.' And frankincense, the aromatic incense used by the priests in sacred rituals was offered to the Christ child according to tradition as a token of his being 'the Son of God.' The gift of frankincense points to 'Christ as our priest,' the one who intercedes for us. And finally, the offering of myrrh, a spice often used to prepare a body for burial, was a foretelling of the destiny of the Christ child as the suffering servant who would be crucified and die for the salvation of all. The gift of myrrh therefore symbolizes that 'Christ is our Savior.'
Over time, the Church began to reinterpret the gifts of the Magi as symbolic of the acts of faith and devotion that could be offered by ordinary people in adoration of the Christ child. Gold came to symbolize the 'virtue' of the faithful, frankincense became 'acts of piety and prayer,' and myrrh symbolized 'sacrifice.' Let's accept this time honored approach, and ask ourselves what are the gifts that we are prepared to bring to the Christ child on this Epiphany Sunday and in the New Year ahead.
d) The return by a different way:
Having followed the star and brought their gifts, the Magi then returned home, but they did so by a different route. Matthew explains that this was to keep Herod from discovering the child, but it also indicates that things had changed for the Magi. They had found what they had come looking for, but they could not have anticipated how it would change them. And Matthew suggests that it will change us, as well. When we get to know Jesus Christ, we are changed forever and cannot go back to our old ways of life.
Now, the feast of “The Epiphany of the Lord,” tells us that Jesus came not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. Paul states this very clearly in the Second Reading of today in his letter to the Ephesians, “…in Christ Jesus, the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, and sharers of the same promise through the preaching of the Gospel.” In other words, God wants everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. How wonderful! God, who first chose the Jewish people, has associated us to that election, in Christ Jesus, so that we now form, all nations together, but a single and unique Body of Christ! “Lord, all the nations will adore you.”
Twenty centuries have gone-by since that first adoration of the Magi, and this long procession of the gentile world still continues to make its way to Christ. Through this feast of “The Epiphany of the Lord,” the Church proclaims the manifestation of Jesus to all mankind of all times, with no distinction of race or nation. “The Epiphany of the Lord,” is the feast of faith and of the apostolate of faith. It is a feast of our seeking & recognizing Jesus, and coming to him & worshiping him at this Mass with the gold of our love, the myrrh of our humility and the frankincense of our adoration. It is also the feast of God's challenge to each one of us, so that the entire world may be incorporated into the People of God. It reminds us therefore that we should use every available means to bring our friends, relatives and colleagues close to Jesus. “LORD, ALL THE NATIONS WILL ADORE YOU.” And this is the Good News of today.