So here we are on the Feast of the Epiphany, wondering what that’s all about and why we’re here. On January 6th, the traditional date, in Ireland “Women’s Christmas” is still observed here and mostly there, a day when those valiant volunteers who spent so many hours decorating, cooking, and cleaning up so the rest of the family could enjoy themselves thoroughly over Christmas and New Year’s get a day off and often get to spend it in the company of their kind.
Well earned, to say the least. Called the Feast of the Kings in Spain, the Epiphany is a huge feast day on which gifts are exchanged rather than on Christmas, which is a time for worship and prayer and gathering with family and friends.
Epiphany means appearance. For Christians over the centuries, it came to mean three things, all of them focused on Jesus — the disclosure of God’s plan of salvation, the revelation of the true glory of God, and most of all the manifestation of the human face of God. Thus, from very early times the Church has celebrated three different events today — the revelation of God’s son to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana — all of which reveal God’s plan to us. At Jesus’ baptism, which has its own feast day in a week, the heavens were opened and a voice proclaimed him the Beloved in whom God was well-pleased. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his signal appearance on the stage of history. The wedding feast at Cana, found in John’s Gospel, serves the same purpose — by changing the water into wine, Jesus revealed his saving mission surprisingly, even prematurely, as an act of compassion and deference.
But today God’s manifestation to the Magi remains the primary focus of our attention. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were, these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East. People still wonder. Or even question if they really existed at all. Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns and funny names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted the Church very much and Christianity itself was an imperial religion. They may have been Jews, for there were Jews among the Maghdim and the traditional names, Caspar or Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, have Jewish origins. Or perhaps they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews — the Gospel describes three gifts, not three figures.
Historically, the Magi or Maghdim were associated with magic and in fact contributed the name. But they were more involved with the study of the patterns of stars and planets to determine how events on earth manifested the plan of God than with prestidigitation and rain-making. The other two magi in the New Testament, Simon Magus and Elymas bar Jesus, whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles (one a Samaritan, the other a Jew) were more sinister figures. Each resists the Gospel at first, but both are inevitably subdued by the preaching of the apostles. Here, the magi need no convincing — for Matthew, these strangers submit willingly to the revelation of God, having followed the star from the east. Their faith is also seen in their quick acceptance of the warning that comes to them in a dream, as another soon will come to Joseph.
After worshipping the child and leaving their mysterious gifts, they pass out of sight. These gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and another dream in Matthew’s gospel, that of a Roman matron who warns her husband not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus now on trial for his life.
Here, however, we are left with the Magi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king and his plan for us?
What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense, which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. Myrrh is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
In light of the kind of things usually exchanged on Christmas as gifts, what the Magi didn’t bring can be as important as what they did bring. Think for a moment about what you or I might have brought and in fact tend to give one another: toys, food, candy, cigarettes, liquor, clothing, flowers, books, tools, or even weapons. Not only perishable, but even dangerous offerings. The Magi themselves very nearly paid for their visit with their lives, and the Holy Innocents certainly did. For they first looked for the King of the Jews where a king is likely to be found: in a palace. Palaces are dangerous places. They king they found there was a tyrant and murderer. They eventually found their true King in a house, probably a very ordinary house, a temporary lodging at that. For the Holy Family were about to become homeless refugees, not unlike Syrian and Iraqi families today.
So who are today’s Magi, these representatives of the Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course – the strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich, the famous, the powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless and oppressed? And what gifts do we bring? A closed mind or an open heart? Compassion for the outcast and suffering, love for our enemies, or a hunger for violence and revenge?
If, like those first Magi, we look in the wrong place, we may not lose our lives, but we could lose more than our way. We could even lose our souls if the gifts we bring reveal a lack of insight into the mystery continually opening before us. So like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, let us search for the place God has chosen to be found — not in the sky or in the palaces of the mighty, not just where we think God ought to be. Let us pray for the grace to recognize Christ where he is still in hiding, and the wisdom to use our gifts in his service, to extend his gospel of truth and freedom, peace and justice and love to those who most need to hear it.