Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
Remember Hale-Bopp — the comet that appeared in 1997? I remember the wonder I felt, gazing into the heavens at that bright smear of light. Driving home in darkness, I searched the sky for its familiar glow and found a reassuring sense of orientation. In the weeks that it shown so brightly, I came to understand how once a great mystery unfolding in the sky, a star of wonder, drew the Magi to the Christ child.
With Isaiah-eyes, we share the vision of exiles returning from Babylon through darkness and thick clouds: A faint glow gradually becomes a city splashed in light by the glory of God.
As the light spreads, we look around us and see others on the journey — sons and daughters, not only exiles but pilgrims coming from every land and nation, all in procession toward the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Among the throng we notice camels (hard to miss), kings from distant lands, and bearers of gifts, expensive (gold) and exotic (frankincense).
In Psalm 72, we discover the source of the light: the rule of justice and peace by a king whose primary and enduring concern lies with the poor and afflicted, the marginalized and victimized, those with “no one to help.”
This one will establish shalom (justice, peace, the fullness of good) over the whole world (to the outer limits of Israel’s imagination), from the Red Sea to the great Mediterranean, from Ethiopia all the way to Spain (Tarshish).
Today’s Gospel introduces “magi from the east,” i.e., wise ones, astrologers, stargazers, who set off on a journey after witnessing a stunning celestial event. In their search for the “newborn king of the Jews” they look first to the palace.
King Herod, all smiles on the surface, senses the threat to his power. “Greatly troubled,” he summons the priests and scribes and determines the likely birthplace of the Messiah, Bethlehem. This useful intelligence Herod provides to the Magi, in exchange for the precise time of the star’s appearance.
He then sends them on their way, instructing them to “search diligently” and send word when they find the child, so that he also may come and “do him homage.” As readers and hearers of this story, we know that his intentions are anything but honorable.
The Magi continue their journey, aided by Herod’s sketchy directions and the surer guidance of the star. Joy overflows when they finally reach their destination. The star shines “over the place,” and as they enter the house, they see the child with Mary, his mother. (Note: Matthew’s text provides neither number nor names for the Magi and they find the Christ child in a house, not a stable.)
The guests fall on their faces in worship; then, recovering their dignity, offer their gifts. Gold and frankincense, we recognize from Isaiah, but Matthew’s account includes a third, myrrh, pointing toward Christ’s death and burial.
Three gifts, along with the kings depicted in Isaiah and Psalm 72, lead eventually to the tradition of three kingly visitors with exotic names. With their tribute offered and accepted, the visitors presumably get a good night’s rest, for warned in a dream, they set off in an unexpected direction, giving the scheming king the slip.
To whom does this epiphany (revelation, manifestation, appearance of divine glory) belong? Isaiah’s testimony makes a strong case for Israel, as he describes the throngs headed to Jerusalem, drawn by the shining radiance of God’s glory residing there.
St. Paul calls the Gentiles “coheirs” with God’s first people. In Matthew, the mystical hints of divine incarnation pierce the ready hearts of strangers, foreigners, others, while King Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” play catch up and deploy damage control.
Therein lies the twist in this story: Insiders, who think themselves entitled to the glory, miss it; while outsiders, seeing just the glimmer, follow it faithfully and discover their heart’s desire.
Melanie holds a master’s in pastoral studies from Loyola University, New Orleans.