While I was working in my office in Baltimore (in my previous life), the company had two 5-story buildings with a walled-in patio in between them. I would occasionally hit some technical problem I didn’t know how to solve. So after getting my head around the problem, I would take my cup of coffee, and whatever, and walk back and forth along the wall, talking through it, and then it would hit me, “A ha!” a solution! Sometimes people will call this a “Eureka!” moment, when the solution suddenly becomes clear. But another name for this, when a truth suddenly opens up before you, is an “epiphany,” from the Greek word meaning an unveiling, or manifestation: The solution manifests itself to you, it’s unveiled to you, and you see the light.
Today’s Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the unveiling, the manifestation, of the light of the world. In an ancient Greek use of the word, an epiphany was the visitation or appearance of the king to a province of his kingdom. Here, also, we have the revelation of the true, eternal king of all creation visiting and appearing to his people.
In the ancient feast of epiphany in the Eastern Church, this feast celebrated not just the visiting of the magi, but also Christ’s baptism by John, with the Holy Spirit coming down and remaining on him, and also the Wedding Feast of Cana, which ends with the words, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee, and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” All three of these events manifest and unveil Christ’s identity and his glory, and his mission as the Holy Messiah. Today the Feast of Epiphany focuses just on the magi. So let’s look at the magi.
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod…”
Ok, so who’s Herod? Well, there were four rulers named Herod. The first was Herod the Great. He’s the one mentioned here, and we’ll come back to him. Second is his son, Herod Antipas, who had given in to the wiles of his step daughter’s slinky dance and got himself trapped into having St. John the Baptist beheaded, and also was the Herod in the Passion of the Lord Jesus. The third was Herod Agrippa I, nephew of Herod the Great (so cousin of Herod Antipas), who executed St. James the Greater (the Apostle, brother of St. John) and imprisoned St. Peter. And the fourth was his son Herod Agrippa II, who St. Paul went before in Caesarea to be interrogated by Jewish accusers. Back to biggest and baddest, Herod the Great. He was at best half-Jewish, being an Arabian Idumite, descended from Esau (instead of Jacob, who was renamed Israel). Herod was chummy with the Romans, who installed him as a vassal king in Jerusalem. But he was excessively cruel, and excessively paranoid. He executed anyone who he perceived as a possible threat to his power and position, including his wives and children (He was played to the hilt by Ciarán Hinds in the 2006 Nativity movie!). So when it says “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,” you can imagine the fear that struck people when Herod started getting paranoid. And knowing that he was only there as king because the Romans put him there, faced with the possibility of a true Jewish King foretold by prophecy? You can imagine he was more than reasonably troubled.
“…behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem…”
Ok, so who are the Magi? There has been a lot of speculation, but little we can know with any sort of certainty. It suffices to say that they weren’t necessarily kings (we’ll come back to that, too), but philosophers, astrologers, scientists, seeking wisdom and truth. They were possibly royal court advisors, sought for their wisdom and their knowledge, as well as their ability to read the signs in nature and the heavens. Although tradition has given us that there were three, the Scriptures don’t tell us how many there were, or if women were among these seekers of wisdom. Some scholars have suggested that each of the magi presented three gifts as mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), not that three magi presented one gift each. But all of this is trivial, really, compared to their meaning in the story. And to do that, we look at some of the scripture verses being alluded to and fulfilled by our gospel reading.
“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Ok, so what’s the star? Again, a lot of speculation. The collusion of planets and/or stars, an exploding star, an angel, we don’t know. I think we should go with the angel theory, because stars would have a hard time suddenly coming to a stop over a particular little house in a little village of little houses.
So the first scripture verse being alluded to is way back in Numbers. In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites are passing through different kingdoms on their Exodus, and they send emissaries to ask permission to pass through their land. But the pagan kings instead send a military response, which the Israelites (with God’s help) decimate one after another. So Balak, the king of Moab, instead of sending a military response, sent a pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse Israel. Instead, God then spoke to Balaam, who then spoke the words God, oracles of blessing for Israel, much to the disappointment of his employer. That can happen when you hire a prophet. But in one of the oracles, Balaam says,
“I see him, though not now;
I observe him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel,
That will crush the brows of Moab,
and the skull of all the Sethites,
Edom will be dispossessed,
and no survivor is left in Seir.
Israel will act boldly,
and Jacob will rule his foes.”
This prophecy became part of the Messianic mythology and expectation. The scepter rising is a sign of kingly dominion, even over the foreign nations and enemies of Israel. And this kingly dominion will be marked by an advancing star. So this ancient prophecy of an advancing star marking the true king is manifest (epiphany!) in the Star of Bethlehem, which led the magi to the Christ child.
The second prophetic scripture being referenced in our gospel is 1 Samuel 16. Here, we meet “Jesse of Bethlehem,” whose eighth and youngest son was David, whom Samuel anointed as the future king. So while historically the “City of David” was always Jerusalem, the city David that ruled from for most of his reign, Bethlehem was the “city of David” in the sense that this is where David was born—and where the new Son of David, the Messiah and everlasting King of the Jews, would be born.
And that leads into the third prophetic scripture being referenced in our gospel, Micah 5:1, which is the prophecy the scribes read to Herod about the birth of the Messiah, the “newborn king of the Jews”: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Interestingly, Matthew tweaked the original prophecy from Micah, which originally says, “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.” There has been much speculation as to why Matthew changed Micah’s words, with no clear consensus. And to clarify, Bethlehem-Ephrathah is the same as Bethlehem of Judah, to distinguish it from another Bethlehem, which is in Galilee.
Now. Back to the magi and their gifts. Our gospel reading says, “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
There’s a footnote in the New American Bible (the English version closest to the Catholic Lectionary) for this verse (Matthew 2:11), that says to consult Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, and that these Old Testament texts led to the interpretation of the magi as kings. Guess what our first reading and our responsorial psalm are for today! Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72.
From our first reading, from Isaiah 60: Jerusalem, “raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your [young] daughters in the arms of their nurses. Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow…”
Jeremiah had earlier personified Jerusalem as a mother wailing the loss of her children: “In Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled for her children—they are no more!” Rachel was the wife of Jacob/Israel, who died in childbirth in Ramah on the way to Bethlehem-Ephrata (Bethlehem of Judah). So while she was dying, her midwife gave her the consolation that she bore a son. Rachel’s tomb is a pilgrimage spot in Ramah, and Rachel is something of a maternal intercessor for the children of Israel, the Jewish people (maternal intercessor… that sounds familiar… ). In that oracle, Jeremiah continues, “Thus says the LORD: Cease your cries of weeping, hold back your tears! There is compensation for your labor… they shall return from the enemy’s land.” Ramah was the staging area for the exiles from Jerusalem before they were marched off to Babylon. So while the mother-city of the Jews, Jerusalem, echoed the weeping of Rachel, God gave her the consolation that “There is compensation for your labor,” for your children will return from the enemy’s land. A few verses after today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we encounter the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which Matthew makes use of Jeremiah’s reference to Rachel, this time as Bethlehem’s infant boys are slaughtered by the paranoid fear of Herod. Matthew quotes Jeremiah as if to say to the traumatized town of Bethlehem, “There is compensation for your labor,” for amidst all this sorrow and death, your king, your light, has come to you, the savior is born, and has safely escaped, and shall return.
So in our first reading today, from Isaiah, he tells Jerusalem to “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you:” see the throng of her children returning from their exile! “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow!”
The rest of the first reading is the ultimate hope of Israel, that Jerusalem would be known among the nations as the center of the world, and the city to come to for worshiping the One True God. For only Jerusalem has the blessing of divine light in the darkness, of freedom from the thick clouds of sin and despair over the rest of the nations: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” Ah, a reference to kings! “The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” Ah, a reference to gold and frankincense! So here we have this image of the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for the future age when kings would be bringing the wealth of all the nations to Jerusalem, bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD (the name of the True God). This is part of the scriptural tradition that contributed to transforming the magi into We Three Kings.
Incidentally, the line in the gospel “they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” is related to this personification of Jerusalem. The holy city of Jerusalem, the mother of the children of God, is personified in a way with Rachel, the mother of the children of God. The kings were going to offer their gifts and homage to the king in Jerusalem. The magi are offering their gifts and homage to Christ in the presence of His mother Mary, who by extension, is the personification of mother Church, the mother of the children of God. The magi don’t bring their gifts to the heart of Mother Jerusalem, but rather to the heart of Mother Mary.
Psalm 70 is a psalm by David, praying for his son, Solomon. The opening stanza says, “O God, with your judgment endow the king, and with your justice, the king’s son; He shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment.” This clearly affirms that it is being written by “the king” (David) in favor of “the king’s son” (Solomon). But it’s also clearly prophetic of far more than what Solomon or any of his immediate successors would accomplish. No, the fulfillment of the prophetic words of this psalm would have to wait for a future Son of David, in whom would be fulfilled this hope:
“Justice shall flower in his days,
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;
the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.”
So here we have the other half (the rest of the story) on why we have three kings in all our nativity sets: the Messianic expectation of the future king, the future son of David, who would rule an everlasting kingdom, to the ends of the earth; that it will be to him that foreign kings would offer gifts, would bring tribute, and pay him homage… like the magi did.
Before we leave the magi, I just want to add one more aspect for us to consider. These magi were pagans, intelligent, wise, and skilled at discerning truth in the natural world. They followed truth where it led them. And where did it lead them? First, to Jerusalem, to inquire from the scribes, the theologians, what was written in the Holy Scriptures. Then, to Bethlehem, to come face-to-face with Christ, the incarnation of God. Sacred Tradition says that God has composed two beautiful books: The Book of Nature and the Book of the Holy Scriptures. The purpose of nature is both to surround us with joy and beauty (of which we are holy stewards), but also to teach us about the nature of God, for everything God has made has his fingerprint. And as such, when humbly taught by the observable nature of Creation, it leads us to the more explicit revelation of his Word, by whom nature was created. The magi could only get so far by nature, then they needed the scribes to help them decipher the final leg of their journey. Then they met the manifestation of their longing: Christ himself, God-with-us. Their humble but determined search for Truth led them face to face with the One Who is (the) Truth (the Way, and the Life).
Now, we do need to take a moment and include the second reading, because it unlocks a key theme to our feast for today, and of our readings: “The mystery was made known to me by revelation… which was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
I’ve mentioned a few times before that the heart of the Messianic expectation was the restoration of Israel. But because the Northern Kingdom, ten of the twelve tribes, had been dispersed among all the nations by the Assyrians, that for the new covenant of God to bring all of Israel into the covenant, the new covenant would necessarily include all nations, all the world. As it does. As St. Paul is teaching us in this letter. The New Covenant is not for Jews only, and not for Jews over the gentiles, but rather Jews and gentiles as coheirs and copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote one chapter earlier in Ephesians, the gentiles and Jews have been reconciled in the blood of the cross, and Christ has made the two into one (how nuptial of him!) thus establishing peace, for through him both have access in the one Spirit to the Father.
King Solomon, the Son of David, was hailed as supernaturally wise, and foreign kings brought gifts (including frankincense and myrrh!) when they came to seek his wisdom. “There is something greater than Solomon here!” Here is the infant Christ, less than two weeks out of the womb, and already kings, magi, the wise and influential of the nations, are bringing him gifts and paying him homage. A key aspect of today’s’ theme is that the magi are a first installment of what Christ would accomplish on a universal scale: the inclusion of the gentiles into the mystery of Christ, the gentiles coming to acknowledge Christ as King, and God the Father as the True God, as St. Paul describes in the second reading.
So what about the gifts? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Matthew names them in particular. We already saw that gold and frankincense are mentioned together in the two readings above, from Jeremiah 60 and Psalm 72. Myrrh appears in quite a few places in both the Old and New Testaments (sometimes together with frankincense), for anointing, or for its aromatic fragrance, or for numbing pain. But what about a theological significance?
Already in the second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (France) would identify that gold represented royalty, the kingship of Jesus. The frankincense was used in the tabernacle for worship, and symbolized the divinity of Jesus. And myrrh, which was an ointment used in burial (it was used by Nicodemus to prepare to anoint the body of Jesus), pointed forward to Jesus’ Passion and death.
I’ve written a number of times of Jesus manifesting the triple role of priest, prophet, and king. The application of the gifts are similar to that by St. Irenaeus: gold for his being a king, frankincense, incense, for his being a priest, and myrrh, anointing oil, for his being a prophet.
A different schema from St. Gregory the Great: “Wisdom is typified by gold; as Solomon says in the Proverbs, ‘A treasure to be desired is in the mouth of the wise.’ By frankincense, which is burnt before God, the power of prayer is intended, as in the Psalms, ‘Let my speech come before you as incense.’ In myrrh is figured mortification of the flesh. To a king at his birth we offer gold (if we shine in his sight with the light of wisdom); we offer frankincense (if we have power before God by the sweet savor of our prayers); we offer myrrh (when we mortify by abstinence the lusts of the flesh).”
Another interesting association is that frankincense and myrrh are only mentioned together in the Song of Songs, where they are nuptial perfumes employed by the Lover and his Bride to prepare for their marriage. And as we said, gold and frankincense are only mentioned together in the readings above, where they are presented to a king. We’ve talked before (2 Sam 5:1) about the nuptial covenant of Israel’s kingship, that the people use the Genesis language of “bone and flesh” to represent a nuptial covenant where the people become the Bride, and the king the Bridegroom. And of course St. Paul in Ephesians 5 applies this to Christ the Bridegroom and his covenant of love with His Bride, the Church, the people. So there’s the royal bridegroom connection.
So to bring this home– We see in the gospel reading three groups of people, in their orientation, or their response, to the newborn king, at his birth, and ever after:
A. The Destructive Group: At first symbolized by Herod, who asked the magi to tell him of the newborn king’s whereabouts, not to adore him, but to dispose of him. Herod’s response was the Slaughter of the Innocents. This group also includes the religious leaders who rejected Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, ultimately orchestrating the injustice that led to his suffering and death. This group also contains those who have persecuted the Church, through unjust laws, and through torture of the faithful. We can, unfortunately, add to this group those within the Church who cause scandal and damage to the mission and credibility of the Church, and cause distress and division to the faithful, as well as personal wounds to victims.
B. The Indifferent Group: The Scribes and Pharisees knew of the multitude of prophecies associated with the Messiah. When Herod asked them, they could pinpoint exactly what town the Messiah was to be born in. The Messiah that they’ve been awaiting for centuries! But they didn’t even bother to go! They tended to their temporal affairs, and even argued against Jesus during his mission, as he unsuccessfully tried to call them to repentance and conversion. This is the lukewarm semi-faithful, who lack fervent, passionate devotion. Their religious identity is not their primary self-understanding, and their values come more from secular culture than from their Catholic faith.
C. The Devout Group: This is the group of those who not only hear the word but do it, who not only humbly recognize their need for a savior from their sin, but seek him out and with gratitude does what he says. This group was The Blessed Mother, and Joseph, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the magi. This group was the lepers, the blind, deaf, and crippled, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the Apostles and other disciples. This group is the saints and martyrs, the holy people who live and share their faith with wisdom and love.
The magi encountered Jesus, and returned differently than they had come. That is the call to us as we have prepared throughout advent to encounter Jesus in a new way at Christmas, and to go home differently than we had come. Like the shepherds, they returned home with more joy and love, spreading the good news that they had heard and seen.
The magi didn’t return to Herod. At the end of the gospel reading, the magi encountered Jesus, and returned differently than they had come. That is the invitation: to go home differently than we came, transformed by the encounter. The magi were following their search for wisdom. Love is the ultimate wisdom. These seekers of wisdom bowed before something greater than themselves: the Love of God. And they went home differently than they had come. That we might do the same.
And just for fun… Enjoy!