Epiphany is an ancient feast in the church. The date was fixed on
January 6 because that was the date of the winter solstice, which
celebrated the rising of the sun god. Light was returning, the days
growing longer. The word "epiphany" means "manifestation," or
"appearance." Thus, we celebrate Christ as the Light of the World;
he dispels our sin and darkness.
This feast is not just for one people, one religion; for Christ
is the "Light of the World." That’s what the visit of the
Magi represents; Gentiles following the light of the star to Christ,
the source of light.
When Christmas is observed in parishes and dramatized in
pageants, the Magi are depicted kneeling by the manger, immobile.
But in today’s gospel the Magi are very much on the move. They
travel a long distance, ask questions and then follow the star again
to the Christ child. He is found in his home, not in Bethlehem, his
birthplace. On Christmas we celebrated Christ’s birth,
God-made-flesh. Epiphany is not a birth story; the Magi foreigners
help us focus on celebrating the light of God’s saving presence for
On this feast we arrive with the Magi at Christ’s home and do
homage to the Light of the World. We also accept our
responsibilities to be transparent. We not only follow the light of
Christ, we are called to shine in a way that brings Christ’s light
to the darkness of this world of ours. Don’t be fooled by the
Nativity scenes and the immobile Magi. Matthew tells us when they
arrived at Christ’s house they "prostrated themselves and did him
homage." They laid their gifts before the Christ child and then,
warned in a dream, depart for their country by another way. They
leave to return home – changed by the Light to whom they gave
Isaiah prophesied that God’s light would shine on the people as
they struggled to rebuild their nation and their lives after the
exile. He promised that the fallen city of Jerusalem would rise from
its ashes. "Rise up in splendor Jerusalem!" The new city would shine
with God’s glory and would draw the nations to it, offering their
wealth in homage – "gold and frankincense" – and joining with the
returned exiles in praising God.
Thus, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first to do homage to the Christ
child were not the angels, or shepherds (that’s from Luke’s
account), but the Gentile astrologers. They fall down, worship and
offer their gifts. God has opened the door to the Gentiles and they
are quick to respond. This will be a theme throughout Matthew’s
Gospel, just as Isaiah prophesied, "Nations shall walk by your light
and kings by your shining radiance."
There is a paradox in the Gospel account. The Jewish leaders had
the Scriptures and the prophecies about the coming Messiah. Yet,
they missed his birth. Later they will even conspire to put him to
death. But the Magi, guided first by the star and then the
Scriptures, accept Jesus as Messiah and worship him. When they
arrive in Jerusalem they ask, "Where is the newborn king of the
Jews?" There is no little irony in their question and the title they
attribute to Jesus – "king of the Jews." Later that will be the
inscription his enemies put on the cross at his crucifixion. Herod
and his advisers reject Jesus, but not the Gentiles.
Remember that Matthew was writing for Jewish converts. So, in
telling the story of the Magi foreigners, he was encouraging those
converts to welcome the Gentiles who were coming into the church.
This is a theme from the beginning of the gospel. In a way, today’s
reading is a summary of the entire gospel: Jesus is the "appearance"
(epiphany) of the Messiah and the fulfillment of the Hebrew
Scriptures. The political powers are troubled at the news, but Jesus
will establish a new Israel that will embrace the outsiders – the
Gentiles (Matthew 8:11). Today’s gospel echoes the Isaiah reading
which describes the final days when Jerusalem will shine like a
bright star and draw all nations together, "bearing gold and
frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord."
I’m thinking of all the very good people I know who do not
profess our faith. But goodness shines forth from them. It’s not
hard to attribute this goodness to God’s presence and work in their
lives. I want to share my faith with them by naming God’s presence
already with them. How can we do that without sounding patronizing,
judgmental, or "preachy?" Since "epiphany" means "manifestation" or
"appearance," then we must look beyond the privacy of our own world
of faith to show forth Christ’s presence in his many manifestations.
The surprise of the Magi’s appearance worshiping the infant Jesus
should break down the mental and physical barriers we have towards
"others." Today reminds us that Jesus came for everyone.
To respond to the Magi’s inquiry Herod turned to the chief
priests and the scribes of the people: "He inquired of them where
the Christ was to be born." They respond by quoting the prophet
Micah: "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, least among the rulers of
Judah...." So, it is among the least that the Messiah will be born.
Again, Matthew is summarizing a central theme in his gospel. For
example, he repeats it in the parable of the Last Judgment. Christ
blesses those who cared for the neediest saying, "I assure you, as
often as you did it for one of my least sisters and brothers, you
did it for me" (25:40).
How does the Lord come to us? He comes in the least. The story of
the Magi is told to children as a Christmas tale. In our nativity
sets they are depicted as distinguished visitors. But remember they
were outsiders and, they challenge us to welcome the outsiders among
us – immigrants, homeless, prisoners, unemployed, etc. When we do
acknowledge Christ among the least we also notice they, like the
Magi, bring valuable gifts to us, starting with the very presence of
The story of the Magi ends in a challenging way. When they
learned of Herod’s evil intentions they, "left for their own country
by another road." This biblical symbolism – a change of path –
suggests that having found Jesus the encounter changed their lives.
Is that what has begun to happen for us this Epiphany season? Have
we met the Lord anew and has the encounter also changed our lives –
even a little bit?
Do you have this Epiphany custom? On this feast we bless our
homes. We process through the house singing, "We Three Kings," and
sprinkle holy water in each room praying for the persons who will
rest and work in them. We also pray for those will come as guests.
It is also a custom to inscribe in chalk on the lintel of the door:
20+C+M+B+19. It is the year and the traditional initials for the
Magi. Which is also the abbreviation of the Latin blessing: "Christus
mansionem benedicat" ("Christ bless this home"). We pray that those
who enter our homes this year will be blessed and find Christ among
for a link to this Sunday’s readings: