The Epiphany of the Lord (go to readings)
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6
[In the United States, the Solemnity of the Epiphany is moved from its traditional date of January 6 (the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8].
“Epiphany” is from Greek, epi- meaning “on or upon,” and -phany meaning to shine. So, on the feast day of Epiphany we celebrate the shining, or revelation, of the divine light of Jesus onto the world.
So first, let’s talk about the magi. The word magi is related to our word magic or magician. Originally a magi was like a philosopher-scientist, who studied the the truths of the world, so someone who studied philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, astrology, biology, theology, perhaps even psychology, at least as these fields of knowledge existed at the time, and were far more overlapping and less separated than they are now. Such wisemen were often part of a royal court as advisers. So these magi arrive, carrying gifts. The important thing is that they were from the east; they were not Israelite, they were pagan wisemen. Ancient Roman and other pagan historians at the time make mention that not only Israel, but many pagan nations also, were expecting a great, wise, and glorious king to rise up in Israel.
And that ties in our first reading, from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. This prophecy of hope and glory, given at a time of suffering after the return from the Exile, when Israel seemed to have neither hope nor glory, tells of a future day when all the kingdoms of the world would come flowing toward Jerusalem, as the whole world worshiped the one true God, present and worshiped in the Temple of Israel. They would bring their riches into Jerusalem which would be the center of human civilization in every aspect. Jerusalem would be a beacon of light drawing all the world by its glory. Not only that, it says, “they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.” So there’s also the Israelite dream of the restoration, the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel. And particularly interesting for todays’ feast, Isaiah says, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… they all gather and come to you… bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.”
A quick look at the Responsorial Psalm refines this image. This psalm is titled, “Of Solomon,” but it doesn’t mean it was written by Solomon, but written by David about his son Solomon, the royal Son of David who was a great king renowned for his incredible wisdom, at least at the beginning of his reign. This was the high point of Israel’s monarchy, an international kingdom of great justice and flourishing. And in this psalm, David makes a similar prophecy: “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.” We might remember that the great and wise queen of Sheba, the Queen of the South, had come to meet with Solomon, and gave a wealth of gifts in honor of his unprecedented wisdom. And going back to our gospel reading, there is something greater than Solomon here. But our first reading and psalm today help to explain why the gospel reading says “magi,” and yet we sing about “We three kings.” Also, the bible doesn’t say that there were only three; just that there were three gifts. There could have been many magi in the caravan, some could have been women. But we traditionally have three wise men because there were three gifts named, combined with the prophecies we heard of kings bearing gifts.
Ok. So let’s now look at Herod, in our gospel. Herod was placed in power over Israel by the Romans, with the simple task of keeping the Israelites in line. Herod was not an Israelite but was from a nearby kingdom. He was quite wicked, and very insecure…a dangerous combination in a despotic leader. Historians tell us that Herod had his own wife and some of his children killed on suspicion that they were plotting against him. So when the magi show up asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,” it says, “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Jerusalem, or by extension, all of Israel, knew that if Herod’s panic and paranoia were enflamed, it could only bring something very bad.
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. As it turned out, it brought the Slaughter of the Innocents, so they were right to be troubled. The sad irony is that Herod had no true reason to fear. Jesus wasn’t coming as a rival, to displace him. If Herod had embraced Jesus as Messiah and Lord, Herod could have been a great king, an instrument of the Most High God, to be a king of mercy, justice, and peace, and have a reign that was secure and stable. But instead, Herod gave in to his fear and pride. The dark side.
So let’s wrap this up with a nice little bow. Three closing thoughts.
First, the particular gifts that the magi brought: why gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Well, we saw in our first reading that gold and frankincense were among the gifts and treasures the kings would bring to Jerusalem. But more interestingly, the only other place that all three gifts are mentioned are in the Song of Songs, and they are mentioned at least loosely in connection with preparing for a wedding. We’ve talked many times about Christ coming as the Bridegroom to consummate a new and everlasting nuptial covenant; and it would embrace all nations, because Israel had been dispersed throughout all the nations, so to re-gather Israel, the new covenant would have to include all the nations. Not only that, but Jesus in his own person is the wedding of divinity and humanity.
Another aspect of these three gifts is that they may make reference to the three-fold office of Christ, anointed to be priest, prophet, and king. Obviously the gold corresponded to his royal majesty. Frankincense is a kind of incense, which is used in the liturgy of worship, denoting Jesus as the True High Priest. And the myrrh was for his anointing as a prophet of God’s truth, and, perhaps also an indication that, like so many prophets before, that as the perfect prophet of God’s word, it would inevitably lead to his death, and myrrh was among the traditional oils used in preparing the body for burial.
So second closing point: Jerusalem was often referred to by the prophets as the “virgin daughter Zion,” the beautiful virgin of God, raised, cared for, and protected by God (and in a different aspect in some prophecies, a virgin courted by God to be His Holy Bride…). And also, Jerusalem was considered to be the mother-city of the people of God, especially with the Ark in the Temple, where God was present with His people. We mentioned on the day we remembered the Slaughter of the Innocents (the Monday after Christmas) the prophecy of Rachel crying out from Ramah that her children were no more. Rachel was the wife of (Jacob) Israel, and in Israelite tradition she had a sort of maternal intercessory role for her descendants, her children (hmm… a maternal intercessory role…). In the Gospel reading for the Slaughter of the Innocents, Matthew is quoting Jeremiah’s image of despair as the inhabitants of Jerusalem were taken into exile. So there’s a connection in Israelite conscience of the maternity of Rachel and the maternity of Jerusalem. That’s where we get the word “metropolis”: mother city. Recall the quote from above, where Jerusalem rejoices at her sons and daughters gathering and returning to her.
So Jerusalem is both a virgin and a mother. Where else do we have a reference to a virgin mother, I wonder? Who, in today’s Gospel reading, may have been “radiant at what you see… as caravans of camels come to you bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD”? The magi-kings didn’t present their gifts when they got to virgin mother Jerusalem, but when, “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother”: the “blessed virgin mother,” as the Church (the new people of God, of every nation) will call her for all generations. The magi came to Mary, and did homage to Jesus. An unexpected fulfillment of our first reading: they came to the virgin mother of the presence of God—but it wasn’t Jerusalem, it was Mary— and they paid homage to God with gifts.
This conflation of images for Jerusalem as holy city, virgin, bride, and mother, may help explain why the Book of Revelation seems to conflate Mary with the Church, and the Church with the Bride of the Lamb, and the Bride with the holy city of the New Jerusalem, and why the readings for some of Mary’s feast days prophetically celebrate the glory of Jerusalem. This dual symbol of virgin-mother may also help explain how Mary can be both the Mother of Jesus and the image of the New Eve, the bride of the New Adam. It can seem a little weird, but that’s mystical theology for you.
And our last point… the magi received a message in a dream not to return to Herod, and returned to their country by a different way. That’s our reality here and now: To follow the light of Jesus, to seek Jesus, to offer all our treasures and gits before him at his disposal, for his glory. And then after this divine encounter, we are to return to our world different, not in the way we came, but by the way he leads us afterward. We just had this beautiful experience at the end of 2020 of seeing the Christmas Star, the Star of Bethlehem. Maybe it was supposed to be more to us than, wow, this hasn’t happened in 800 years, and how weird is it that it happened at the end of 2020? Maybe it was, HEY! Seek Jesus! Find him! And guide your life by his light! Seek him in the holy scriptures, seek him in the holy sacraments, seek him in his presence within you, and in your neighbor. Seek him. Know him. Love him. Serve him.