Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a.5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. From the early days of the Church, this feast has been considered as an important feast receiving at times more attention than the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Celebrated on the 6th of January and in some areas on the first Sunday in the month of January, this feast recalls the arrival of the magi or the three kings to Bethlehem in search of the King of the Jews. Originally this feast contained the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, all of Jesus’ childhood events, up to and including his Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. It is also called Theophany, meaning the Manifestation especially by Eastern Church. At present on the feast day of Epiphany only the coming of the Magi is celebrated. The word ‘epiphany’ comes from Greek word epiphania, meaning a ‘showing’ or ‘manifestation’. Epiphany celebrates God’s revealing or manifesting of Jesus’ identity as true God, Messiah, and Saviour of the world.
God’s revelation of Jesus of Nazareth to us is a gift. He condescended to us and revealed Jesus to us in ways that we could understand. He sought out the magi and revealed Jesus’ Person and Mission to them through the star and Scripture. They never could have discovered this on their own if He hadn’t revealed it by grace. He had mercy on John the Baptist and others at the Jordan on the day of Jesus’ baptism. No one there on that day could have possibly perceived the true identity of Jesus as John baptized Him. But God condescended to them and allowed them to hear and see the testimony of the Father and the Spirit. Once again, God took the initiative by His grace and revealed Jesus as eternal God as well as man.
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 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, perhaps under the influence of Psalm 72:10 which says, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!”; and Prophet Isaiah says “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves”. In the western Christian churches, these include the traditions that there were three Magi who visited Jesus, that their names were Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and that they were kings. These derive from an early 6th century Greek manuscript in Alexandria. Since the earliest days of the church, these wise men have been considered to be representatives of all the peoples of the earth.
Matthew tells us that the Magi found Jesus by following a star, which thus traditionally known as the Star of Bethlehem and accepted the interpretation of the star and followed it to discover the King. On finding him, they gave him three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew, which are found only in Yemen. Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, is much more obscure. All three gifts are ordinary offerings given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable precious item. The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense or incense as a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh, the embalming oil as a symbol of death. There is talk of following a star. The star is also a symbolic expression, a light representing Jesus as the Light of the whole world.
The First Reading taken from the Book of Isaiah speaks of a prophecy that was made about seven hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus. In those days, the Israelites were rejoicing because after years of captivity, they were permitted to return to the holy city Jerusalem. Isaiah gave them hope that the promised Messiah would soon rise among the people and that His glory would be seen by all. The prophet emphasises the fact that they would be the light of the world and that the nations of the world would come to their light. While the prophesy spoke of the wealth and the multitude of camels that would be brought to the Israelites, this was spoken in symbolic language. The true wealth that the Jewish people will possess would certainly be the spiritual wealth, the divine presence. Today’s prophecy of Isaiah concluded with the words, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” These words are fulfilled with the gifts that the three wise men from the East brought to Jesus.
The Second Reading taken from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, of the commission of God’s grace that was given for them, and how the mystery was made known to him by revelation. Paul again tells the Ephesians that God’s revelation is universal. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humanity as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Through him we are the recipients of the grace.
On this feast of Epiphany let us look into its meaning and application today. God, in the person of Jesus, is reaching out to the whole world. More than that, the religious leaders of his own people – the chief priests and experts in the scriptures, although clearly aware of where the Messiah would be born, made no effort whatever to investigate. For them Bethlehem was not too far away but they were blind to the fact of the arrival of the Messiah. These pagan foreigners, on the other hand, went to great lengths to find the “King of the Jews” and “do him homage”. All in all, today’s feast is telling us that for God there are no foreigners, no outsiders. From his point of view, all are equally his beloved children. We all, whatever external physical or cultural differences there may be between us, belong to one single family which has one Father, “our” Father. It means that every one of us is a brother and sister to everyone else. There is no room for discrimination of any kind based on nationality, race, religion, class or occupation. There cannot be a single exception to this position.
The facts of today’s story may be vague but the message is loud and clear. We thank God today that there is no “Chosen People” whether they are Jews or Christians (or even Catholics). Let us try to understand more deeply God’s closeness to us which is also a reason for us to be close to each other. There are no outsiders. All are called – be it the Mother of Jesus, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the lonely, the healthy and the sick, the saints and the sinners. Yet, we can become outsiders. We do that every time we make someone else an outsider, whether we do that individually, as a family, a community, or an ethnic grouping. To make even a single other person an outsider, that is, to deny them the love and respect which belongs equally to all, is to make an outsider of oneself.
Finally, as he did to the Magi God shows the stars to us and we might ask ourselves, what are the stars in our lives. The wise men saw the star and followed it. The people in Jerusalem did not. How and to what is God calling me at this time and where does he want me to find him, to serve and follow him. Some have their priorities already fixed and so have stopped or have never even started to look for the real priorities, the God-sent stars in their lives. 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. The same star will also lead us to Jesus our King and Lord.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome