6 January 2008, Epiphany of the Lord

Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12

Today, we are celebrating Epiphany Sunday. This special Feast commemorates the revealing of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles. In some European countries, the popularity of this Feast is known as the “Twelfth Night” (after Christmas). The meaning of the word “epiphany” has its roots in the Greek language. The first part of the word, “epi,” means “upon.” The second part, “phainein,” means “to show.” By combining these two meanings, “to show upon,” we are reminded of the manifestation of the glory of Christ to the Gentiles.  The original purpose of the Feast of Epiphany, which had its beginning in the Eastern Church during the 3 rd century, was to commemorate how the glory of Christ was revealed to the Gentiles.  The word ‘epiphany’ comes from Greek and it means a ‘showing’ or ‘manifestation’. We call today’s feast, the Epiphany of our Lord but the term could equally well be applied to the other two.     Such took place in four ways: (1) the birth of Jesus Christ; (2) the arrival of the Magi; (3) the Baptism of Jesus; (4) the first miracle at Cana. Of these, the Baptism of Jesus was predominantly commemorated.  During the early days of the Church, it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate the birthday of the sun on December 25th. During that celebration, the non-believers lit lights on account of the feast. This became a matter of controversy and hence importance was given to Epiphany. In fact we celebrate today the second of four great manifestations of God in our midst.

Today’s Gospel Reading relates to us the event of the three wise men that followed the star that led them to the Child Jesus. They followed the brilliant star in the sky. To them, the light of the star was a symbol of hope, of joy and of peace. To them, the star was but a small reflection of the fullness of the Light of the world that awaited them at the end of their journey.

Who were these “wise men” and where did they come from? In the Greek text they are called magoi which is usually rendered in English as “Magi”. Magi were a group or caste of scholars who were associated with the interpretation of dreams, Zoroastrianism, astrology and magic (hence the name ‘Magi’). In later Christian tradition they were called kings (“We three kings of Orient are…”) We are not told what their names were or how many of them there were. Tradition settled on three, presumably because there were three kinds of gifts. And they were also given names — Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Caspar was represented as black and thus they were understood to represent the whole non-Jewish, Gentile world which came to Christ.


We are told, too, that they came “from the east”. This could be Persia, East Syria or Arabia – or indeed any distant place. The Asian theologian, Fr Aloysius Pieris, points out the significance for Asians that it was wise men from the East and not the local wise men who recognized the light that led to Jesus.

The Feast of Epiphany is a reflection of the Light. Through the Birth of Jesus, we see the arrival of the Light in the world. Through the Magi, we see the light of hope, of joy and of peace to come. As part of that homage they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts seem inspired by Isaiah 60:6 quoted in today’s First Reading, “They shall bring gold and frankincense”. In later tradition, the gold came to symbolize the kingship of Christ, the incense his divine nature, and the myrrh his redemptive suffering and death. They also came to signify virtue, prayer and suffering.

All these events are reminders to us that we too are called to be a light in the world. Being enlightened by the Light of God in our hearts, we are called to go forward and to share with others the Good News, our hope, our joy and our peace that the Light of Christ has bestowed upon us. In today’s feast, we see the same recently born baby in similar circumstances but the material and social surroundings are hardly touched on. The emphasis here, as we shall see, is different. Here are strangers, foreigners, total outsiders coming to give royal homage to this tiny child. This will be the theme of Matthew’s Gospel. “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations.”

The wise men did not know where the star would lead them. They just followed it until it brought them to Bethlehem — and to Jesus. They never, I am sure, regretted their decision. If we can only have the courage and the trust to follow their example, I doubt if we will have regrets either. If we have not already done so, today is the day to make that start.


A sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, ‘Doctor, I am afraid to die.  Tell me what lies on the other side.’

Very quietly, the doctor said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know?  You, a Christian man, do not know what is on the other side?’

The doctor was holding the handle of the door;  On the other side came a sound of scratching and whining, and as he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness  Turning to the patient, the doctor said, ‘Did you notice my dog?  He’s never been in this room before.  He didn’t know what was inside.  He knew nothing except that his master was here. And when the door opened, he sprang in without fear. I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing…   I know my Master is there and that is enough.’

 A very happy New Year to you!!!


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