Today’s celebration is one of the oldest in the Christian tradition. In Ireland it is traditionally called Nollaig na mBan, “the Women’s Christmas,” sometimes “Little Christmas,” or even the Feast of the Three Kings, and in an English tradition “The Twelfth Day of Christmas,” complete with twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, and all the rest. It marks the end of the Christmas festival. It is a celebration of light and glory. Whatever we call it, in these dark times, the Epiphany shines like a bright light still burning in the night. I am reminded of Jerry Hermon’s wonderful song from Auntie Mame,
…we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet
And we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
We need a little Christmas now…
Of course, Mame was singing about Christmas itself, but it still fits well. In this year of so much confusion, sickness, suffering and death,
…I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now…
‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “sudden appearance.” We still use it to describe an unexpected inspiration. But THE Epiphany is a feast of the Lord that summarizes just about everything. From ancient times, Christians celebrated in one grand festival the manifestation of God’s saving grace to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each progressively and surprisingly revealed God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
The first reading from the Book of Isaiah sets the tone with its rhapsodic celebration of light and glory and adds a touch of royalty that will later get
attached to the Magi, abetted by Psalm 72, our responsorial song. It’s all about the salvation of the Gentiles, the non-Jews who had seemed barred from God’s favor. It’s about inclusiveness in today’s terms. [See Is 60:1-6, Eph 3:2-3a,5-6, and Matt 2:1-12]
The letter to the Christians of Ephesus, from which we take our second reading, spells it out explicitly: “the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the Good News” [Eph 3:6]. Matthew’s version takes the form of a wonderful story of revelation, desperation, and salvation.
The gospel reading focuses our attention on the sudden appearance of the magoi, mysterious strangers, star-gazing Gentiles most likely from Persia, who come to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews. Christians have always wondered who they were. Or even if they really existed at all, despite some relics in the Cathedral of Cologne and those wonderful names, Caspar (or Gizbar), Melchior , and Balthazar. (Or in the Ethiopian Church, Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Take your pick.) Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point. Perhaps he was thinking of the passage from Isaiah we just heard. He doesn’t say.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns, number, and names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted Christians and Christianity itself had become an imperial religion. They could have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia, these Maghdim as they were called, and God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews. The three gifts they brought, borrowed by Matthew from the ancient scriptural sources, could have accompanied as many as a dozen visitors, as related in some traditions. In makes sense, for 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. Not perhaps by chance the birthday of Mithras, a semi-divine figure of this eastern religion greatly favored by the Roman military, was celebrated on December 25th. He was, incidentally, said to have been born in a cave.
And so, after worshipping the child and leaving their gifts, these mysterious strangers pass out of sight, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was planning on murdering the child and most likely them as well. Their 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 a final dream in Matthew’s gospel, that of a Roman wife who warns her husband, sitting in judgment, not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus then on trial for his life [Mat 27:19] .
Now, however, we are left with the Magoi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us all?
In light of the kind of gifts usually exchanged on Christmas today, what the Magoi didn’t bring was as important as what they did bring. No toys, clothing, food, liquor, tools, or even weapons — after all, Herod was fully capable of slaughtering children as well as adults. 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 (chrysos), it was held, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense (Libanon), which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. And myrrh (Smyrna) is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are not so much costly as priceless gifts — appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
The Magoi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house. But the Holy Family who lived there were about to become homeless refugees and the Magoi vanish into the mists of time.
So who are these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life, the strangers and outsiders brought into the realm of God’s saving love? We are, of course. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or will we find him among the poor, the outcast, the homeless, refugees, and the oppressed? And what gifts do we bring him today?