A dictionary definition of the word “Epiphany” would be something like: “A usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” What we might call an “ah ha moment.” From our Christian perspective, Epiphany refers to the manifestation of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
There are three events in the life of Jesus that constitute the Epiphany: The Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River where the voice of God announced from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), the Wedding Feast at Cana where Jesus performed his first public miracle (Jn 2:1-11); and the adoration of the magi from the East (Mt 2:1-12). Our celebration this Sunday centers on the visit of the magi.
The magi were representatives of a pagan religion who came to Jerusalem from the East, following the messianic light of the Star of David, seeking to pay homage to the one they recognized as the newborn King of the Jews.
There is a lot going on in our gospel account of the visit of the magi. First of all, who are the magi? Biblical commentaries describe the magi as a Persian (modern-day Iran) priestly class of astrologers who were thought to have more than human knowledge; in other words, they were “wise men.” Secondly, as astrologers, it seems likely that they would have been familiar with the stars, but why would they follow a particular star? Many ancients believed that when a king was born, a new star would appear, so the magi were following what they believed to be a new star, and that belief can be traced back to the “Star Prophecy” of Numbers 24:17 if you care to look it up. The “Star Prophecy” proclaims a great king that will arise in Israel. It doesn’t necessarily prophesy an astrological event such as a new star but coupled with the belief that a new star will arise with the birth of a great king, we have the magi following that new star. In addition, the gifts the magi presented are also significant. Gold indicates kingship, that Jesus is King of the world. Frankincense, as incense, relates to priesthood, that Jesus is our high priest before God. Myrrh was a burial ointment that indicates the suffering and death that Jesus would undergo for our salvation.
The significance of this event is that the magi are Gentiles, but they seek in Israel the Christ Child whom they recognize will be not only King of Israel but the King of the nations, the King of the Gentiles as well. The church sees these magi as the first fruits of the Gentile nations who will eventually welcome the news of salvation through the Incarnation and through the gospel that proclaims that salvation. It means that Gentiles will discover and worship Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the World, but they will do so by receiving from the Jewish religion the messianic promise found in the Jewish Old Testament.
Our first reading from chapter 60 of Isaiah is an example of that Old Testament prophecy. Bearing in mind that this portion of Isaiah would have been written approximately 500 years before the time of Christ, it prophesies that the glory of the Lord will shine from Jerusalem and that “nations shall walk by your light.” Whenever we come across the word “nations” in the Old Testament, it references Gentiles as the Old Testament sees only two kinds of people in the world; there are the Jews, and there is everyone else, and everyone else is a Gentile. So, this passage prophesies that the Gentiles will walk in the light that emanates from the Jews, and those Gentiles will come bearing gold and frankincense and will proclaim the praises of the Lord. Therefore, the theme of our first reading is that salvation will come from Israel but will not be restricted to Israel; it will be open to all nations. The golden thread that ties Isaiah 60 to our gospel is the Gentile magi who came to worship the Lord bearing gifts.
Notice how the theme is carried on in our Responsorial Psalm: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” And by St. Paul in our second reading: “That the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Our gospel passage is Matthew’s account of the “Visit of the Magi,” but it, too, contains some of that Old Testament prophecy. When Herod asked his chief priests and scribes where the Messiah was to be born, they answered by quoting Micah 5:1: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,….. since from you shall come a ruler.” If Herod had paid attention to the prophecies of the Old Testament, he would have understood that the Messiah would not come to rule an earthly kingdom. He would come for the salvation of the world and to rule over the heavenly kingdom of God on earth (the church), where justice and peace prevail. Had Herod understood, he would have rejoiced rather than being greatly troubled.
This is what we hope and pray for every day; that Christ will return and establish that just and peaceful kingdom. Whether that kingdom will be on earth or in that state of existence we refer to as heaven, or if it will happen in our lifetime remains to be seen, but the justice and peace it represents is that which we pray for and what we are assured of through the scriptures and the 2000-year history of the teachings of the church.
Author: Ric Cross