The Epiphany of the Lord
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 2:1-12
One of the greatest stories in the New Testament is that of the Three Wise Men, or the Magi. Legends abound and their presence adds to the fairy tale quality of the Christmas story.
Neither the number nor the names nor the countries of origin of these men are given to us by St. Matthew in his gospel account. Despite this dearth of information, so much about these men is a part of the ‘common knowledge’ of the average Catholic.
One thing that St. Matthew does give us is the term magi. The term is Persian in origin and refers to those in the priestly class. These men would be educated in the esoteric arts of astrology, alchemy and magic. As astrologers they would have looked to the stars for the answers to life’s questions and so they would have been drawn to the phenomenon that we know as the Star of Bethlehem.
The names of the Magi were learned by most of us when we were children: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. These names are extra-biblical, and the need for three magi seems to rest on the fact that three gifts are mentioned by St. Matthew. In some traditions the three men are not just magi, but are kings – as shown in the song “We Three Kings.” This probably derives from the statement “May all kings bow before him” from Psalm 72.
The countries of origin, the ages and the looks of the three have varied over the centuries, but it is not uncommon to see Caspar as having the look of an old man from the Occident (the cultural, if not geographic, West), Melchior having the look of a middle aged man from Asia and Balthazar having the look of a young man from Africa. How apropos, since Christ is for all people of all ages and from all places and times – He is a universal, or catholic, Messiah.
These men bear gifts that are the most well known birthday presents of all time, and it would be hard to find someone who did not know that the gold represents kingship, the frankincense represents divinity and the myrrh represents mortality. St. John Chrysostom wrote that these gifts showed that the magi knew exactly who lay in front of them as they offered the gifts. These gifts, according to Chrysostom, go way beyond what would be given to a mere earthly king – these are gifts fit only for God.
So their journey anticipated their meeting with the Messiah, the Son of God, and it enlightened them to the fact that they should not return to King Herod with news of their findings. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and means ‘an appearance’ or ‘a manifestation.’ What appeared to the Magi was the Savior of the world, the King of Kings, and that appearance so changed them that they became models for us all. When confronted by the manifestation of the Creator of the Universe wrapped not only in swaddling clothes but more importantly in the nature of a human being we, like the aptly named Wise Men, can have only one response – we must be transformed into people who flee the evil of the Herods of this world and return to our country by another way, the Way of Christ.