Although the traditional date for the celebration of the Epiphany is January 6 (twelve days after Christmas), in the United States and many other places the feast is transferred to the nearest Sunday. So we celebrate it today – that is, tonight, beginning with the Vigil Mass.
Following the image below: a slightly adapted version of the homily I gave three years ago for this feast.
On this Feast of the Epiphany we typically sing the hymn “We Three Kings”, about the kings who went to see the Christ child. We also talk about the three magi or wise men, and it’s generally understood that all the different names refer to the same people. In any case, whether they are the same or not, the gospel for this feast speaks about magi (that is, wise men) – rather mysterious figures – and it would be wise for us to try to understand more fully who they were, and even learn from them.
Though a great deal of folklore surrounds these figures, they in fact make only a brief appearance in the gospels, and we really know very little about them. The first thing of note is that nowhere in the gospel does it say that there were three of them; this idea probably comes from the fact that they brought three gifts. We don’t know their names, either; tradition gives them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but Christians in the Far East know them by other names. Neither do we know for sure that they were kings, though it’s possible; the idea that they were kings, probably comes from the references to kings in our first reading, from Isaiah, and also from the responsorial psalm, Psalm 72, where three kings are mentioned. Finally, we’re not even quite sure what qualified them to be called “magi” or “wise men”. It appears that they were leaders of an ancient Persian religion, and that their studies in astrology and religious prophecies made them able to understand what the appearance of the new star in the sky meant.
Fortunately, there’s much that we can reflect on in connection with what we do know about them, which centers on the three gifts that they brought, as well as their ethnic and religious background. We’ll start with the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold and frankincense were prophesied in today’s first reading, as we heard that “all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord”. “Sheba” was a sort of code word for “the farthest eastern point in the known world”, and indeed, the magi or wise men in the gospel are said to have come from the East. The gold that they brought was a sign of kingship. The frankincense was a sign of divinity, as incense was used in worship. So in bringing gold and frankincense, the wise men were acknowledging Jesus as both King and God.
The third gift of myrrh wasn’t prophesied, at least not in the first reading. What’s more, it was an unusual gift, one that must have given pause to Mary and Joseph. Looking through the scriptures, we find in the book of Exodus that myrrh was mixed in liquid form together with other aromatics like cinnamon, to make an oil to anoint priests; in other words, it was part of the ordination ritual. And in the gospel of John we see that myrrh was part of the oils used for embalming. Incidentally, there is a polite reference to myrrh as “bitter perfume” in the song “We Three Kings”, but in reality, it’s not like a perfume at all: on its own, it smells something like burning rubber. And one of the reasons that it was used in embalming was to mask the smell of the corpse. Considering these uses of myrrh, it seems that the magi had a very profound insight into the person of Christ: they understood that this king had come not simply to rule; more than that, he came to offer sacrifice: he was to be both priest and victim, sacrificing himself for his people.
We can also learn from the wise men’s ethnic and religious background: they were Gentile pagans who came to worship the King of the Jews. This teaches us something about the people for whom our Lord would die, namely that he came not just for the Jews but for the whole world. This had been prophesied in the Old Testament; even still, it was not something that many people at that time were really expecting. Thus St. Paul marveled in today’s second reading about how the Gentiles are full heirs of the promises of God, equal with the Jews. The Jewish shepherds had come first to worship the infant Jesus, just as the Jews had been the first chosen by God. But now, the later arrival of the magi also to worship the divine child is a symbol of how God opens his kingdom to all people of every race.
Everyone needs Jesus, and the good news is that Jesus is for everyone. And this is the message of the Feast of the Epiphany: that the whole world belongs to Christ, and Christ gives himself to the whole world. Even as a little baby at home with his mother and foster-father, he is recognized by the wise men as God and king, priest and victim. Those who are truly wise still seek him today, and they recognize him for who he is, not merely who they wish him to be. So many people try to fashion Jesus in a self-serving way; let’s say as a bosom buddy who overlooks or even ignores their faults and failures. He surely is a friend, but the Epiphany reveals to us that he is also Almighty God, King of all, who came to die for our sins. If we meditate on these truths, then we might not be as tempted to take our relationship with him so lightly or have a distorted image of him. We will want to live more fully for him; we will marvel at his humble greatness and seek to imitate him, which indeed is what he commands us to do, as he will tell us when he is older: take up your crosses and follow me.
The gospel does not tell us how many wise men came to see Jesus, so as to leave the number open to include us as well. As we begin this new year, let us seek Christ out each day and reflect more deeply on who he is and what that reality both means for us and demands of us. In other words, may we grow in wisdom – not the wisdom of this world, which comes packaged under the form of “chicken soup for the soul” and other warm and fuzzy guises – but the wisdom of God, which is far more profound, and promises us so much more than we could ever imagine.