Feast of the Epiphany
We call the visitors from the East who followed a star and came to Bethlehem by different names: the Magi, the astrologers, the wise men and the three kings. But in spite of their many titles, they came for a single purpose: to worship the Christ Child, the newborn King.
Their reason for following that star is found in the name of today’s feast: the Epiphany. It means “a manifestation,” “a showing.” Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, manifested Himself, showed Himself to the entire world through these non-Jewish visitors.
“The Gentiles are coheirs” with the Jews, “members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel,” Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians.
We see this Epiphany event here at the manger. Three wise men are there, with a camel in tow. And there are many legends about these men.
One says that after the star that was leading them came to rest over the stable in Bethlehem, it then dropped into a well. And that if you have a pure heart, you can look into that well and see that star shining beneath its water.
Another legend claimed that there were twelve wise men. But later on, it settled upon three, although the Scriptures do not tell us how many there were. The number three is very logical since they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Another says that they themselves were eastern kings who came to pay homage to the newborn King of the world.
Another gives them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
But the Scriptures do tell us that these visitors from the East were not Jewish but followed a star and found the Christ Child, offered their gifts and paid Him homage. And in the three gifts that they brought we find a lot of symbolism.
Gold was a gift for a king. We have a practice today that, when you visit someone’s home for dinner, you take a small gift with you to present to the host or hostess. In the East, if you were fortunate enough to be invited to visit the king, you would take a substantial gift to present to him. And gold was considered the most appropriate gift to give to a king.
The gift of gold was the Magi’s acknowledgement that Jesus truly was a king – but a different kind of king than the rulers of this world. Jesus did not rule by fear but by love. He did not reign from an earthly throne but from the throne of His cross. And we need to submit to His kingship.
There is a story from years ago about Lord Nelson in the British Navy. He was known to be kind and gracious when other military officers came to him to surrender. One day an enemy admiral boarded Lord Nelson’s ship to surrender. Knowing that he was a kind a gracious man, the admiral approached Lord Nelson with an outstretched hand. And Lord Nelson, with his arms at his side, said to the surrendering admiral: “First your sword and then your hand.” He needed to submit.
And so do you and I before Christ our King. He comes to us in friendship, making us a part of His family. But first we must submit to his kingship. And so gold was the first gift of the Magi to Christ the newborn King.
The gift of frankincense was for a priest. In temple worship, incense was used as a sign of our prayers rising before God with a pleasing fragrance before Him.
The Latin word for high priest is “pontifex,” which means “a bridge builder.” Jesus our Priest is the bridge between God and the human race. Jesus makes God available to us and takes our prayers to God. And so frankincense was the second gift of the Magi to Christ the Priest.
The gift of myrrh was for someone who was going to die. In those days, a body was prepared for burial with a spice called myrrh. It was an early form of embalming. But this third gift of myrrh was a sign that Christ, the newborn King and Priest, would one day die on the cross so that we could live forever.
There is a painting by Holman Hunt that depicts Jesus in His teenage years. He is working hard in the carpenter shop late one afternoon and is tired. So He goes to the doorway and stretches out His arms against the door jamb. And the sunlight comes through the door and casts a shadow on the back wall of the carpenter shop.
In the background is Mary who sees the shadow of the cross on that back wall and her face registers sorrow and fear because she catches a glimpse of what will happen to her Son one day. He – our King and our Priest and our Saving Victim – will die on the cross so that we can live forever.
The gifts of the Magi are very heavy with meaning: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for someone who would die. This feast of the Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world: to Jew and Gentile alike. And so the response to Psalm 72 that we sang today after the first reading continues to ring true down to our own day: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”