SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY (2021)Readings:
Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
There are few stories more ingrained in our Christmas psyche than the story of the Three Kings, a story only recounted in the infancy narrative of the evangelist Matthew. The story has inspired writers, artists, and ordinary Christians for centuries. It is hard to imagine a Christmas crèche without the presence of the three kings who came from afar, and while the story might tax the purely literal brain who is only concerned about the story’s authenticity, it remains a story filled with wondrous symbolism surrounding a significant truth about the Christian faith.
Ever since the appearance of Melchizedek, kings have played an important role in Israel’s history, and the kingship of Israel was viewed as the nation coming of age, even though many of Israel’s kings would be responsible for leading them astray, and non-Israelite kings were often seen carrying off God’s chosen people into bondage. Kings were feared in good times, and longed for in bad times. While Isaiah never mentions the word king, our first reading was meant to give people in exile hope, for it describes a nation superior to all nations, a nation whose light will lead other nations, and a nation which will have the wealth of all nations laid at their feet. In that wealth is two of the prized possessions brought to the manger – gold and frankincense.
The Responsorial Psalm, like the first reading, is meant to inspire hope in those who pray the psalms. The kingly Messiah “shall govern people with justice,” and “justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace till the moon be no more.” Foreign kings shall offer gifts and bring tribute, “all kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” The Magi will fulfill the hope of nations, and whether three or more kings showed up at the manger (“house” in Matthew. The assumption of three kings is made purely because of the number of gifts, and the names associated with those three kings were given to us by tradition), it is important that the newly born infant be seen as Lord of all peoples: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”
The story of the magi is one of those stories where we could be easily lost in the details, and not allow ourselves the pleasure of being lost in the wonder of God’s love, a God who brings the Magi to where they belong through the brightness of a star that moves in order that it may guide the Magi to their final destination. The Magi, and all men know this to be true, should never have stopped to ask directions, for they drew the attention of the evil King Herod who had heard the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a ruler to come out of Bethlehem. In spite of Bethlehem’s largely insignificant status, Herod was unwilling to take any chances of being challenged by another ruler, and agrees with the Magi that they will return once they have found the newborn king and let Herod know his whereabouts, for Herod has the most nefarious of intentions.
Perhaps the magi were running out of steam; perhaps the Magi no longer believed that the star would truly guide them; whatever the reason, the magi continue on their journey, and find the child and His mother, and they open their treasures to offer to Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, “they departed for their country by another way,” thus sealing the fate of the holy innocents.
Were a trip like that of the Magi possible, one can only imagine the hardship and difficulty of such a trip. Harsh desert climates, uncooperative camels, finding sense in a night sky where there was no sense, and evil kings – made the travel of three (or more) friends all the more challenging. Even as fictional persons, the three Magi can serve as models for all those who try to find God in a world that is filled with hurdles. So much of the challenge facing the Magi had to do with reading the signs of the times correctly, and the Magi surely came to understand that the sought-after child was not to be found in the most expected of places. We, too, have to persevere in our quest to find God, living in and through others, and we must be open to find God in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected of people. Beneath the roughest of exteriors, inside the most complex of individuals – if we take the necessary time, we will find a glimmer of that light that has guided countless numbers of people before us, and we will see in that inner light a reflection of the light that shone on that first Christmas Day.