|Botticelli: Adoration of the Magi|
Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. Traditionally, the story of the "magi from the east" has been seen as a sign of the manifestation of the Lord to all nations.
Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah with its mention of caravans of camels and dromedaries bearing gold and frankincense has from the earliest days of the Church been associated with the story of the Three Kings or Wise Men. Today's gospel account from St. Matthew only tells us that "magi from the east" followed the star "to the place where the child was." It doesn't say that there were three of them, or that they were kings. But tradition and art have added the familiar features to the story.
We have three kings probably because of the three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--which are associated with royalty. In art one of the Kings is usually portrayed as an old man, another is middle aged, while the third is young and beardless. They symbolize all the ages of mankind. Tradition called them wise men because the word magi came to mean "magician", or one familiar with the secrets and mysteries of nature. It is common to think of them as astronomers or astrologers because of the famous star that they followed to Bethlehem.
Although legends have embellished the story of the Magi, there is an historical core to their story. There were, after all, "magi" in the East. The members of the ruling priestly class of the Persian empire to the east of Palestine had for centuries been called "magi." They would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies because so many Jews had emigrated to Persia in the centuries before Christ. Their journey to Bethlehem would have been over a thousand miles but it would have followed established and frequently traveled trade routes.
The reaction of King Herod to their news certainly fits what history has told us about that cruel despot. In those days it was common for rulers to kill anyone who might be a potential threat to their crown. Herod murdered his favorite wife--he had ten--and five of his own sons when he suspected that they were plotting against him. The slaughter of the Innocents which St. Matthew describes a little later in this chapter is certainly in line with Herod's character.
What is the importance of the visit of the Magi? Why is the Feast of the Epiphany one of the greatest in the Church's calendar?
We know that after the Resurrection of our Lord the first converts to Christianity, even the Apostles themselves, had difficulty in understanding that the mission of our Lord was not just to the Jews. There was a great debate in the early Church where some argued that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian. In St. Paul's epistles we see that this issue centered around the question of circumcision, that particular rite which signified one's membership in the nation of Israel.
In fact the very first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem precisely to discuss this very issue. There St. Paul, inspired by his own vision of the Lord, argued that the message of Christ was for all mankind. As he says in today's reading from the Letter to the Ephesians,
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...
For Paul the Messiah promised to the Jews was to be in Isaiah's words a light to all nations. We will see next week that St. Peter, as observant a Jew as St. Paul, will have his own vision in which he sees that what God has created no man can call unclean. Perhaps it is only after the question had been decided that the early Christians began to reexamine the words and life of Jesus for new meaning.
He came to call sinners. He cured the Roman centurion's servant. The Sermon on the Mount did not mention race, creed, or color. He praised the Good Samaritan and insisted that the foreigner was more a neighbor to the beaten Jewish traveler than his countrymen who passed him by on the road to Jericho.
They even discovered an incident at the very beginning of our Lord's earthly life which indicated that He had come as a light to all the nations. The "Magi" had come from the East to bring Him gifts and do Him homage. On the other hand, the despised ruler of the Jews had only sought to put Him to death. Apparently, Herod and his advisers couldn't even see the star that led the "Magi" to the child.
The Christmas season comes to an end with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are completed. Next week, we will begin to follow Jesus as He begins His public life. We will have a whole year to find Him on His way to Jerusalem. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,
Wise men still seek Him.
|Giorgione: Three Wise Men on First Seeing the Star|
Reading 1. Isaiah 60: 1-6
Reading II. Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Gospel. Matthew 2: 1-12 (magi from the east).