The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (Magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.
In Matthew’s story of the coming of the Magi, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The Magi's coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.
Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament.
Matthew draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that "a star shall advance from Jacob" (Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not an astral phenomenon but the king himself.
The act of worship by the Magi, which corresponded to Simeon's blessing that the child Jesus would be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32), was one of the first indications that Jesus came for all people, of all nations, of all races, and that the work of God in the world would not be limited to only a few.
At home in their distant, foreign lands, the Magi had all the comfort of princely living, but something was missing -- they were restless and unsatisfied. They were willing to risk everything to find the reality their vision promised.
Unlike the poor shepherds, the Magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. The shepherds also knew adversity, and it had prepared them to accept the angels' message.
But once they overcame their fright, they simply "crossed over to Bethlehem" to meet the Christ child. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes!
The Magi from the East, foreigners in every sense of the word, were guided not only by their own wisdom and knowledge of the stars, but were aided by the Hebrew Scriptures that now form the Old Testament.
The meaning of this is important -- Christ calls all peoples of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, to follow him. We could say that Jerusalem and the Old Testament serve as a new starting point for these Gentile pilgrims on their road to faith in Jesus.
The people of the big city, indeed even Herod himself, were instrumental in leading the Magi back to Christ! Matthew's Gospel shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. Matthew introduced "all the chief priests and scribes of the people" as advisers of the sinister Herod.
It might appear that they do no more than answer a theological question. Matthew certainly implies something else. In the first place, they, too, had been troubled by the Magis' word of birth of the Messiah. Knowing that he was paranoid on the subject of any threat to his throne, the Magi should have realized that he would not look kindly upon an infant "king of the Jews."
By disclosing to Herod the birthplace of the Messiah, the advisers became, effectively, collaborators in his evil intent. In fact it is they, not Herod, who will later bring about the death of the "king of the Jews." It is the "chief priests and elders of the people" who will plot to arrest and kill Jesus [Matthew 26:3-5, 47; 27:1-2, 12, 20]; "the scribes" are mentioned in 26:57 and 27:41. He was a threat to Herod and to them: to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.
If we read Matthew’s Gospel story carefully, we realize that far from being a children's tale, it is a tragic adult story. Matthew's shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. To those who are alert to the signs of the times and the places, the coming of Jesus is an invitation to risk and to embark on a journey of faith and a journey of life.
Simple folk can usually find the Lord by crossing a field like shepherds; they bring their poverty, humility and simple openness. But knowledge, wisdom, power, prestige, and the lack of humility often lead to despair. People who believe they have the immediate, final truth and clarity about anything often are led into bleak, dead-end streets or they remain lost in the desert of solitude, self-sufficiency, selfishness and despair.
In the end, the Magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.
If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way -- rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onwards, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity's deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love and peace.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network
Watch all the Advent and Christmas reflections online here.
Image: The Adoration of the Magi, 17th century, by Rembrandt.