Year A: The Epiphany of the Lord
The Visit of the Magi
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star* at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘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.’” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Gentlemen, I wish you all a very happy New Year, and wanted to share this amusing Epiphany anecdote with you from John Shea:
When the Magi finally reached the manger to greet the newborn King, they each dismounted from their camels, knelt before the baby Jesus and presented their gifts. One by one they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The baby Jesus thanked the first King but said I don’t want the gold. The second King presented his gift and again the baby Jesus said that he did not want the frankincense. Finally, the third King offered his gift of myrrh and for the third time the baby Jesus refused saying he did not want any myrrh. The kings were confused and asked Jesus, what do you want? The baby Jesus looked at them and said; “I want the camel”
Shea explained the point of the story is that Jesus can’t have a relationship with gold, frankincense or myrrh, but he could have a relationship with the camel. Jesus offers us himself. It’s all about relationship.
- Have you ever experienced something you would describe as a religious epiphany, a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way? Explain.
- In what ways has Jesus been “light” to you personally?
- As a Disciple of Jesus, what responsibility do you have to be a light to your family, to your workplace, in your relationships? How do you bring this spiritual concept into awareness first, then into action?
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
If you think that hearing another part of the Christmas story as late as January 8 is stretching it out too much, just imagine what those Magi felt as they trudged through the desert toward Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. Their trek probably lasted even longer than the commercial Christmas season. Matthew then took their story and fashioned it as a subtle summary of the entire Gospel message. All we have to do is decode it a little.
First, while Matthew explains that Jesus came from good Jewish stock, he makes it equally clear that God isn’t into racial purity. Besides Mary, there are four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, each of them a foreigner; collaboration with God’s plan was not limited by the bloodlines of the chosen people. In fact, Joseph’s acceptance of the pregnant Mary and Herod’s use of Scripture to further his plan to harm the infant Jesus demonstrate that scrupulous adherence to law and belief in messianic prophecies don’t necessarily prove faithfulness to God. Now we see that in Matthew’s Gospel the first people to give homage to Jesus were probably Arabs, “pagans” who learned from nature rather than Scripture that God was up to something in their day.
These pilgrims fit the description of “God fearers.” They were people looking for more, who believed in signs indicating that God was involved in human history.
They were also ready to go a distance to see.
The Magi followed a star, a sign in their own tradition, but they didn’t limit themselves to their own religious background. Upon arriving to Jerusalem, they
sought counsel from the faith of the people of that place. When “they sought diligently,” Jewish wisdom together with their own tradition led them to the child. Matthew records no commentary about the family’s modest setting, but only says that they saw the child and prostrated themselves in homage. Then, adding practical content to their religious sentiment, they “opened their treasures” and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We might say they worshiped in word and deed.
We picture them as three because of the three gifts that are named. In reality, they
could have been two or ten or more; they could have been a retinue including women and children. But what’s important about them is what they have to tell us about seeking and finding, about worship that has integrity.
Without mentioning the Magi, St. Augustine reflected on how human nature was created with a thirst for the divine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The Magi were people gifted with what Augustine might have called the grace of holy restlessness. Apparently well-to-do enough to take a long journey and arrive with expensive gifts, they set off with enough interior freedom to be responsive to the Spirit who urged them to look for more than they already had and knew.
We use the story of the Magi’s seeking and finding as the frame for our feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of God’s self-revelation. The combination of this story and the meaning of the feast make a subtle theological statement intimating that only those who are willing to go a distance in their seeking will discover God’s self manifestation. We might look to E. E. Cummings for light on the mystery of the Epiphany journey. In his poem “Somewhere I have Never Travelled” he writes:
somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near
That’s an ode to the beloved. At the same time, perhaps unintentionally, Cummings’ poetry suggests an insight into what it meant to gaze on the Christ
Child; it’s meditation on the dance between humans and the God who lures us to share divine life. When the Magi encountered the babe they had indeed traveled beyond any experience and found great power in frailty.
Today is a good day for poetry, the sort of reading that demands both quiet contemplation and the restlessness of spirit that opens us to what lies beyond anything we already understand. The journey of the Magi is a reminder that the pilgrimage toward God is long. As the Magi seeking a king found a poor child, our journey will surprise us as well. In telling of the Magi, strangers to the traditions of Israel, Matthew intended to shake us out of our ethnocentrism and facile assumptions about other people’s beliefs and our own as well.
The story of the star leading to Bethlehem’s child is one more rendition of God’s gentle yet unrelenting overtures to humanity. In the effort to draw us close, God will use anything from stars and prophecies to poetry or restlessness. If we are open to the grace of seeing, anything and everything can be an epiphany.
The Great Manifestation
This liturgical feast has a rich and complicated history. It originated in the East where the feast celebrated the declaration of Jesus’ divine identity at his baptism (“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”). Some other ancient traditions associated Epiphany with the performance of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. In the Western Church the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the story we find in today’s Gospel, the wise men’s adoration of the infant Jesus. What all three of these biblical events share is a public “manifestation” (the Greek meaning of the word “epiphany”) and acknowledgement of Jesus’ true identity.
The feasts of the Nativity (Christmas) and Epiphany are bound together. Christmas invites our contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation: God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. With the feast of Epiphany the camera view widens to take in a range of human responses to the Incarnation. Perhaps these epiphanies led the wise men, the witnesses to Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding guests at Cana to recognize that they need not escape the world to find God; God had come to them.
If Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, Epiphany calls forth the spiritual habits of recognition. Do we have the spiritual vision to identify the humble and unexpected epiphanies occurring daily in our own lives? Are we as driven as the wise men to seek out the presence of God in the embrace of our neighbors, in the face of an annoying coworker, in the panhandler on the street corner?
Richard Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College