Year C: 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.
- Have you ever experienced something you would describe as a religious epiphany, a moment where you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way? If yes, what made it a religious experience?
- In what ways has Jesus been “light” to you personally?
- As a Disciple of Jesus, how are you a light to your family, to your workplace, in your relationships? How do you consciously bring this spiritual concept into action?
Why is reflecting on, naming, and praying about your deeper longings and desires important to your spiritual journey?
Margaret Nutting Ralph, PHD
Today’s Gospel is the wonderful story of the magi coming to pay homage to the Christ child. We have probably all acted out this story either as children in costume or by assembling a crib set. It is very likely that in all of our enactments the magi arrived at the manger, a combination of images that does not appear in the Gospels. The magi appear only in Matthew, the manger only in Luke.
The fact that Matthew and Luke both tell stories of Jesus’ birth, but that their stories differ in detail, is evidence that both Matthew and Luke were using the literary form of infancy narrative. (We discussed infancy narratives briefly in the Gospel commentary on the Feast of the Holy Family.) Infancy narratives teach not what was known about a child at the time of the child’s birth but what was known after the after the person became great.
In order to teach his post-resurrection message about Jesus, Matthew winds Old Testament images around his account of New Testament events. Alluding to Old Testament passages in this way was a teaching technique of the time called midrash. We will better understand Matthew’s teaching if we are familiar with the Old Testament passages to which he refers.
When the magi arrive at Herod’s palace they ask, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” This is an allusion to Numbers 24:15-17a.
The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor
the utterance of the man whose eye is true
The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured and with eyes unveiled:
I see him, though not now.
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel…
In the Book of Numbers these words appear on Balaam’s lips. This scene takes place while the Israelites are camped on the plains of Jordan Moab across the Jordan from Jericho. They have not yet crossed the Jordan to claim the promised land. Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid that the Israelites will conquer his people. He asks Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they will no longer be a threat. Balaam explains that he cannot say anything that God would not have him say. When Balaam speaks, he blesses the Israelites rather than curses them.
When Balaam says, “A star shall advance from Jacob, / and a staff shall rise from Israel,” he is speaking of King David, who did later conquer the holy land. The setting of this scene precedes David, but the person telling the story lived after David. The story in Numbers is teaching that David’s reign was ordained by God. Matthew uses Balaam’s words to teach not about David, but about Jesus.
In Matthew’s story, when Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes to ask where the Christ was to be born, they reply,
“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.
Matthew pictures the magi going to the house where they find Jesus and Mary: “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.” In Third Isaiah, the recipient of the kings’ attention and gifts is the nation Israel, God’s instrument of revelation to the nations. In Matthew, Jesus is the recipient of the magi’s homage and gifts. Matthew is teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites. Jesus is the light to all nations. Other nations have come to recognize their Lord.
What Is Absent from Your Life
Fr. Michael K. Marsh
For most of us the beginning of a new year tends to focus our attention on the future. For some of us that focus is expressed in our New Year’s resolutions, the intentions we have for our life, and the plans we make. Others of us may not make resolutions but we still have hopes and wishes for the coming year, and we consider the possibilities of what the year might hold for us. Some of us simply want a clean slate, a fresh start, a new beginning.
In whatever ways this gets expressed or experienced it touches a longing or desire within us. We seek something we don’t have. We want something different. We are aware of an absence. Something is missing from our lives. I don’t mean our life is defective or deficient and I am not making a criticism or a judgment. It’s just the recognition that there are times in our lives when we experience absence.
Here’s the paradox. That absent thing, that missing piece, is also present to us in and though our longing and desire for it. We may not see it or experience it and it may not yet be fully realized in our lives, but it is there. It is present by its absence, and we experience that presence as longing, desire, and searching. It already exists within us.
So, one week into the new year, let me ask you this. What resolutions have you made for 2022? What are your intentions or plans? What do your hopes and wishes focus on? Maybe it’s about your marriage, or your life of prayer. Maybe you want to be more generous or less judgmental. Maybe you want to get healthier, live more simply, let go of your need for approval or perfection. Maybe you’re longing to find and hear your own voice, desiring to live with greater integrity and authenticity. Maybe you’re looking for peace, consolation, hope.
Sometimes we don’t know what it is we’re after. We only know we’re looking for something. Have you ever had that feeling that something was missing, you didn’t know what, but you knew you’d recognize it when you saw it?
You might be wondering what absence has to do with epiphany. They sound mutually exclusive. But maybe it’s not as simple as there’s either something there or there’s nothing there. What if the experience of absence and the accompanying longings and desires are the beginning of an epiphany for you? What if that sense of absence is the star of your life by which God is revealing God’s self to you? And what if your sense of longing and desire is really God’s longing and desire for you?
Maybe epiphanies are the means by which God’s expresses God’s longing and desire for each of us. Maybe they are God calling and guiding us into the house of the divine. Maybe an epiphany is not so much an “Aha, I got it” kind of moment as it is an “Aha, it’s got me” kind of moment. It’s a moment that awakens us to the deep desires of our hearts, touches the longings of our life, and fills the absence in such a way that we get up and go, change our life, know ourselves in a new way, and travel along a different road.
I really do believe that’s what happened to the magi, and I think it happens to us as well. That star in the night sky illumined for the magi an absence. It shone on them as a longing and desire. They thought they were seeking the Christ child, but it was really the child seeking them.
St. Romanos helped me understand that. He was a poet and hymn writer in the sixth century. He read between the lines of scripture with sacred imagination to write some amazingly beautiful and inspired hymns. Earlier this week I read his hymn on the visit of the magi in which we hear a conversation between Mary and Jesus. The magi come to the door. Jesus tells Mary to let them in, that he brought them to the house by his word. His word was the light of the star shining on them. He tells Mary that he is in the magi even as he is in her arms and that he came with them to the house though he never left Mary.
The star the magi followed was the word of Christ. They never traveled alone. All along, Jesus was with them and calling them to his house. His word, his presence, appeared to their eyes as a star, to their minds as a power to get up and go, and to their hearts as a longing and desire, an absence that held the divine presence within them.
That’s epiphany. And the star is always there. It’s not as if the star of Jesus’ word, his presence, shines for some but not others. It’s there for everyone. It may be unseen, unrecognized, or unfollowed but it’s always there.
I wonder if we often fail to recognize the epiphanies in our lives because they so often begin in absence. If we think nothing is there, then we’ve misread the absence and we will miss the epiphany. I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want you too either. Today, I want us to begin with the absence. I don’t want us to run away from it, deny it, or cover up. I want us to name the absence and in so doing “observe his star at its rising.”
What is absent from your life today? What are your deep longings and desires? What is the word of Christ that you need to illumine your life tonight?
Whatever you might name, that is the beginning of your epiphany. It is more than emptiness. It is God calling. It is a guiding star that illumines your life. It shimmers with God’s longing and desire for you. It shines in the night sky of your life. It twinkles presence in the midst of absence. It is a beacon beckoning you home.
Trust the star. Follow it. Listen to it. Learn from it. Let it take you to the house of Jesus. Stand at the door with the magi, as a wise woman or a wise man, and listen to the child tell his mother, “Let them in. I brought them here.”
Reflection Excerpt from: Interrupting the Silence, Fr. Michael K. Marsh