SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD (2019)
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my father going to the local corner store shortly before Christmas and returning with a small gift for each of us children. The unexpected gift was three kings, dressed in brightly colored robes of red and blue and gold, and riding on shiny silver camels. The kings were made of inexpensive plastic, and while they did not match the simple manger which sat on a living room coffee table in size or material, they completed the Christmas tableau which was always at the center of our celebration of Jesus’ birthday. I could never imagine a Christmas without the three kingly figures reminding me of an essential element of God’s plan for the world that He created.
Our annual celebration of Christmas is always a blending of images from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and were it not for the evangelist Matthew we would have no knowledge of the three kings. Matthew speaks not of kings but of magi, wise men from ancient Media and Persia, often reputed to possess supernatural powers. They were likely astrologers, men who were capable of reading the stars, and men who were sufficiently wealthy enough to fund a lengthy trip and present extravagant gifts. In our celebration of the feast they are seen as the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you…; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense.” It is also kings who are spoken of by the Psalmist who “shall bring tribute” and “pay [the Lord] homage.” But it is our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that highlights one of the most important “take-aways” of our Christmas story.
At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, in his narrative about Jesus’ birth, Matthew demonstrates what Paul wanted the Ephesians to know: “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” It was foreigners, “magi from the east,” whose Spirit-driven curiosity caused them to embark on a journey to find “the newborn king of the Jews.” They became instruments in God’s plan of salvation, and foils to the evil puppet King Herod whose only desire was to eradicate a child who might become a threat to his power. The first people in Matthew’s gospel to recognize the baby Jesus as king were Gentile magi, and they are the first to prostrate themselves and do Him homage.
The Greek word Epiphany (επιφάνεια), which means appearance or manifestation, is used to describe Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles, God’s Self-revelation. The Feast of the Epiphany, having originated in the East in the late second century, is an older celebration than the feast of Christmas. Saint Gregory the Great spoke beautifully about the Epiphany when he wrote: “When the king of heaven was born, the heavens knew that he was God becasue they immediately sent forth a star; the sea knew him because it allowed him to walk upon it; the earth knew him because it trembled when he died; the sun knew him because it hid the rays of his light upon his death.” We have come to know Him and believe in Him, and today we celebrate His manifestation to people everywhere.
Let us, like the magi of old, do whatever it takes to find the Lord present in all people and in the world that He created. While the world may not appear very welcoming to God and the things of God, let us remember that we worship a God who broke through the darkness of another age and was born in a simple stable in Bethlehem. Some were unable to recognize the light that was Christ – Herod, the Pharisees and Scribes – yet others – foreigners from the east and simple shepherds – were able to see in a vulnerable baby the very Savior of the world. Let us be attentive to that same Spirit who prompted the kings to change their plans and “return to their country by another way.” And by all means, let us offer to God the most precious of gifts, the gift of our hearts.