Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
Introduction: The Greek word Epiphany (epiphanos), which means appearance or manifestation or showing forth, is used to describe Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles. Originally the word Epiphany referred to the visit of a king to the people of his provinces. "Epiphany" refers to God’s Self-revelation as well as to the revelation of Jesus as His Son to all mankind. 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. In the Western Church, the feast commemorates the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. 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 the 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. Finally, Jesus revealed himself as a miracle worker at the wedding of Cana, thus revealing his Divinity. These multiple revelations are all suggested by the Feast of the Epiphany.
Homily starter anecdotes: # 1: “Because you never know what’s going to happen next.” A survey was made among school children asking the question why they enjoyed reading Harry Potter novels and watching Harry Potter movies. The most common answer was, “Because you never know what’s going to happen next.” This same sense of suspense and surprise prompted us to watch the episodes of the Star War movies. The same desire for epiphany with the thrill and suspense awaiting them prompted adults to watch James Bond films and encouraged the great explorers like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus to make risky and adventurous journeys. It is the same curiosity which led the Magi to follow the star of Bethlehem. An element of suspense marked every moment in the journey of the Magi, who never knew what road the Spirit of God was going to take them down next. Today’s readings invite us to have the same curiosity as explorers and movie fans do, so that we may discover the “epiphany,” or manifestation, or Self- revelation, of our God in every person and every event, everywhere. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/ )
Scripture readings summarized: Isaiah 60:1-6, is chosen as today’s first reading, partly because it mentions non-Jews bringing gifts in homage to the God of Israel. Here the Prophet Isaiah, consoling the people in exile, speaks of the restoration of the New Jerusalem from which the glory of Yahweh becomes visible even to the pagan nations. Thus, the prophet in this passage celebrates the Divine Light emanating from Jerusalem and foresees all the nations acknowledging that Light, enjoying that Light and walking by that Light. As a sign of gratitude for the priceless lessons of Faith offered by Jerusalem, the nations will bring wealth by land and sea, especially gold for the Temple and frankincense for the sacrifice.Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 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 the privileged recipient of a 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 the mystery of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. Paul explains that this plan includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus implemented this Divine plan by extending 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 of Jesus’ Body, the Church. Paul claims that he was commissioned by Christ to make this mystery known to the world. 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 (Mt 28:19).
Gospel 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 (24:17), 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. They were led by God’s power to Christ and brought gifts to him and his family—to Mary and Joseph—as Isaiah and the psalmist foresaw.
The gifts: Gold, frankincense and myrrh may be thought of as prophesying Jesus’ future, gold representing his kingship as well as divinity, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. Gold was a gift for Kings, and the Magi accepted the baby Jesus as the king of the Jews. Gold is also a symbol of Divinity and is mentioned throughout the Bible. Pagan idols were often made from gold and the Ark of the Covenant was overlaid with gold (Ex 25:10-17).The gift of gold to the Christ Child was symbolic of His Divinity—God in flesh. Frankincense is highly fragrant when burned and was therefore used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God (Ex 30:34) Frankincense is a symbol of holiness and righteousness. The gift of frankincense to the Christ Child was symbolic of his willingness to become a sacrifice, wholly giving himself up, analogous to a burnt offering. Myrrh was used by the High Priest as an anointing oil (Ex 30:23) Myrrh was used in ancient times for embalming the bodies of the dead before burial. It was a fitting “gift” for Jesus who was born to die. It was also sometimes mingled with wine to form an article of drink. (Mt 27:34) refers to it as “gall.” Such a drink was offered to, and refused by, our Savior when he was about to be crucified, as a stupefying potion (Mk 15:23). Myrrh symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction. The baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man and would pay the ultimate price when He gave his life on the cross to redeem all mankind, if they chose to believe in Him and receive this gift. In addition, myrrh was used an oriental remedy for intestinal worms in infants, a useful gift for a new baby. These gifts were not only expensive but portable. “Laden with gold and spices, the journey of the magi evokes those journeys made to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba and the ‘kings of the earth’ (see 1 Kgs 10:2,25; 2 Chr 9:24). Interestingly, the only other places where frankincense and myrrh are mentioned together are in songs about Solomon (see Song of Songs 3:6, 4:6,14)” (Dr. Scott Hahn). Perhaps Joseph sold the gifts to finance the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt and Mary kept myrrh in her medicine chest. 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. Herod, in today’s Gospel, asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah is to be born. Their answer says much more, combining two strands of Old Testament promise - one revealing the Messiah to be from the line of David (see 2 Sm 2:5), the other predicting “a ruler of Israel” who will “shepherd his flock” and whose “greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth” (see Mi 5:1-3) (Dr. Hann). Later, the scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus because he had 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, the 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, probably Persian astrologers, were following the star that Balaam predicted would rise along with the ruler’s staff over the house of Jacob (see Nm 24:17). 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. “Like the Magi, every person has two great ‘books’ which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of Sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God Who speaks to us, who always speaks to us.” (Pope Francis)
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 course for our lives as the Magi did, choosing for ourselves a better way of life in the New Year by abstaining from proud and impure thoughts, evil habits and selfish behavior and sharing our love with others in acts of charity. c) Let us become stars, 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 his gifts to us 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, talents 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!” (Fr. Anthony Kadavil)