Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2- 3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12
There was once a holy monk who lived in Egypt. One day a young man came to visit him. The young man asked: "Oh, holy man, I want to know how to find God." The monk was muscular and burly. He said: "Do you really want to find God?" The young man answered: "Oh, but I do." So the monk took the young man down to the river. Suddenly, the monk grabbed the young man by the neck and held his head under water. At first the young man thought the monk was giving him a special baptism. But when after one minute the monk didn’t let go, the young man began struggling. Still the monk wouldn’t release him. Second by second, the young man fought harder and harder. After three minutes, the monk pulled the young man out of the water and said: "When you desire God as much as you desired air, you will have the epiphany of God."
Introduction: The Greek word Epiphany (επιφάνεια) means appearance or manifestation or showing forth, marks Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles. "Epiphany" refers to God’s Self-revelation as well as to the revelation of Jesus as His Son. Epiphany is an older celebration than the feast of Christmas, having originated in the East in the late second century. In Italy and Spain, the gifts traditionally associated with the Christmas season are exchanged today, on the feast of the Epiphany. Among Italians, it is believed that the gifts are brought by the old woman, Befana (from Epiphany), whereas Spanish custom attributes the gifts to the Kings or Magi. The feast commemorates the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the Western Church. In the Eastern Church, the feast also commemorates the baptism of Christ. The angels revealed Jesus to the shepherds, and the star revealed him to the Magi, who had already received hints of Him from Jewish scriptures. Later, God the Father revealed Jesus' identity to Israel at His baptism in the Jordan. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus revealed himself as the promised Messiah. These multiple revelations are all suggested by the Feast of the Epiphany.
Today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 60:1-6, is chosen partly because it mentions non-Jews bringing gifts in homage to the God of Israel. The passage also celebrates the Divine Light emanating from Jerusalem and foresees all the nations acknowledging and enjoying that light and walking by it. Today’s Psalm (72), declares that all the kings of the earth will pay homage to and serve the God of Israel and His Messiah. Thus, these two readings express hope for a time when “the people of God” will embrace all nations. As a privileged recipient of divine “epiphany”, Saint Paul reveals God’s “secret plan” that the Gentiles also have a part with the Jews in divine blessings. Hence in the second reading, St. Paul affirms that Jesus extended membership in his Church, making it available to all peoples. Thus, the Jews and the Gentiles have become “coheirs, members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Hence, there are no second class members. Today’s Gospel teaches us how Christ enriches those who bring Him their hearts. Since the Magi came with joy in their hearts to visit the Christ Child, God allowed them to see wondrous things. At the same time, today’s Gospel hints at different reactions to the news of Jesus’ birth, foreshadowing his passion and death, as well as the risen Jesus’ mandate to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).
Exegesis: The Magi and the star: The Magi were not Kings, but a caste of Persian priests who served Kings using their skills in interpreting dreams and watching movements of stars. The sixth century Italian tradition that there were three Magi, Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior, is based on the fact that three gifts are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi may actually have been Persian priests or Babylonian astronomers or Nabataean spice-traders. Eventually, however, they were pictured as representatives of different peoples and races. The Orthodox Church holds that the Magi consisted of twelve Kings, corresponding in number to the twelve tribes of Israel. Commentary on the Torah by Jewish rabbis suggested that a star appeared in the sky at the births of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Likewise, in the Book of Numbers, the prophet Balaam speaks of "a star that shall come out of Jacob." Stars were believed to be signs from God, announcing important events. Thus, the brightness of the Light to which kings were drawn was made visible in the star they followed.
The gifts: Gold, frankincense and myrrh may be thought of as prophesying Jesus’ future. Gold was a gift for Kings; frankincense (an ancient air purifier and perfume), was offered to God in Temple worship (Ex. 30:37); and myrrh (an oriental remedy for intestinal worms in infants), was used by the High Priest as an anointing oil (Ex. 30:23), and to prepare bodies for burial. These gifts were not only expensive but portable. Perhaps Joseph sold the gifts to finance the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt. The gifts might have been God’s way of providing for the journey that lay ahead.
The triple reactions: The Epiphany can be looked on as a symbol for our pilgrimage through life to Christ. The feast invites us to see ourselves as images of the Magi, a people on a journey to Christ. Today’s Gospel also tells us the story of the Magi’s encounter with the evil King Herod. This encounter symbolizes three reactions to Jesus’ birth: hatred, indifference, and adoration. a) A group of people headed by Herod planned to destroy Jesus. b) Another group composed of priests and scribes ignored Jesus. c) The members of a third group -- shepherds and the magi -- adored Jesus and offered themselves to Him.
A) The destructive group: King Herod considered Jesus a potential threat to his kingship. Herod the Great was a cruel and selfish king who murdered his mother-in-law, wife, two brothers-in-law and three children on suspicion that they had plotted against him. Later, the scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus because he criticized them and tried to reform some of their practices. Today, many oppose Christ and his Church because of their selfish motives, evil ways and unjust lives. Children still have Herods to fear. In the United States alone, one and a half million innocent, unborn children are aborted annually.
B) The group that ignored Christ: The scribes, Pharisees and the Jewish priests knew that there were nearly 500 prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the promised Messiah. They were able to tell Herod the exact time and place of Jesus’ birth. They were in the habit of concluding their reading from the prophets on the Sabbath day by saying, “We shall now pray for the speedy arrival of the Messiah.” Unfortunately, they were more interested in their own selfish gains than in discovering the truth. Hence, they refused to go and see the child Jesus -- even though Bethlehem was quite close to Jerusalem. Today many Christians remind us of this group. They practice their religion from selfish motives, such as to gain political power, prestige and recognition by society. They ignore Jesus' teachings in their private lives.
C) The group that adored Jesus and offered Him gifts: This group was composed of the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds offered the only gifts they had: love, tears of joy, and probably woolen clothes and milk from their sheep. The Magi offered gold, in recognition of Jesus as the King of the Jews; frankincense, in acknowledgment that He was God, and myrrh as a symbol of His human nature.
Life Messages: (1) Let us make sure that we belong to the third group. a) Let us worship Jesus at Mass, every day if we can, with the gold of our love, the myrrh of our humility and the frankincense of our adoration. Let us offer God our very selves, promising Him that we will use His blessings to do good for our fellow men. b) Let us plot a better path for our lives. Just as the Magi chose another route to return to their homes, let us choose a better way of life, abstaining from proud and impure thoughts, evil habits and selfish behavior. c) Let us become the Star, leading others to Jesus, as the star led the Magi to Him. We can remove or lessen the darkness of the evil around us by being, if not like stars, at least like candles, radiating Jesus’ love by selfless service, unconditional forgiveness and compassionate care.
(2) Like the Magi, let us offer Jesus our gifts on this feast of Epiphany. (a) The first gift might be friendship with God. After all, the whole point of Christmas is that God’s Son became one of us to redeem us and call us friends. God wants our friendship in the form of wholehearted love and devotion. (b) A second gift might be friendship with others. This kind of friendship can be costly. The price it exacts is vulnerability and openness to others. The good news, however, is that, in offering friendship to others, we will receive back many blessings. (c) A third gift might be the gift of reconciliation. This gift repairs damaged relationships. It requires honesty, humility, understanding, forgiveness and patience. (d) The fourth gift of this season is the gift of peace: seeking God’s peace in our own lives through prayer, the Sacramental life and daily meditation on the Word of God. It is out of humble gratitude that we give Him from the heart our gifts of worship, prayer, singing, possessions, and time.
As we give our insignificant, little gifts to God, the good news is that God accepts them! Like the Magi offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we offer what we have, from the heart, in response to what that Child has given to us - Himself.
Let us conclude with a 19th century English carol, Christina Rosetti’s A Christmas Carol, which begins, “In the bleak midwinter.” The carol sums up, in its last stanza, the nature of "giving to the Christ child.”
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I could give a Lamb.
If I were a wise man, I could do my part.
What I can I give Him? Give Him my heart!”
(Source: Homilies of Fr. Anthony Kadavil)