Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. That word, epiphany means revelation or insight. In today’s liturgical context, it refers to the truth that God sent his Son not only to Israel in fulfillment of prophecy, but to all nations and peoples; symbolized in our readings by three magi, who offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child.
Magi is the plural form of magus, which was a member of a priestly caste in ancient Persia. Traditionally, these particular magi were also believed to have been kings. And so, our passage today presents us with a certain contrast of kings and wisemen. On the one hand, we have King Herod and the wise men of his court. On the other hand, we have these noble magi from the East. Both serve as examples.
We’ll begin with Herod. King Herod ruled over Judea and Jerusalem with the endorsement of the Roman Empire, the leading empire of the day. He had great wealth, power, and influence; and an army to enforce his will.
Ironically, even though he was a king, he was nevertheless a slave to a narcissistic paranoia. Nothing of his reign secured him any sort of lasting peace or happiness. He was a miserable creature; and his misery eventually ruined him and his entire family. He felt threatened by his family, which led him murdering some of them. In his madness, he also massacred every boy at Bethlehem less than two years old, fearing the Christ child and the unknown future that he represented.
In short, Herod’s kingdom only had room for Herod and his own plans and agenda, with no room for anything or anyone else. Though a king, Herod was a prisoner own fears, trapped and stuck in place until his death.
Contrast him with the magi. Some traditions give us their names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Traditionally, homes are blessed with their initials every Epiphany. You can see that blessing on the doors of this Church inscribed with chalk. The numerals 20 and 23 serve as bookends to the magi’s initials, C, M, and B. A cross divides each of those letters. Those initials also represent the invocation Christus mansionem benedicat, which is Latin for “May Christ bless this house”.
As kings, the three were men of wealth and influence. They each had kingdoms of their own, and had authority over the people of their lands. And as magi, they were well-educated and versed in religion. They could see in the stars the advent of the great prodigy to be born and appreciate the religious significance of so great an event.
But they weren’t content with mere knowledge of the newborn king. The wanted to meet him. And that desire led them to courageously leave behind their palaces, and enter into the poverty of the desert; to abandon the security of their palaces, and opt for an unknown future.
They relinquished their influence as magi, and chose rather to be pilgrims in a foreign land, subject to foreign laws and traditions, so that they could humble themselves even further, by hopefully kneeling before the King of Kings. But that radical surrender and extreme vulnerability prepared their hearts to receive the greatest of rewards: they saw the human face of God.
How different from Herod in his palace! Herod and his entourage knew where Christ was to be born. But not one of them bothered to seek him out. For all of their knowledge, not one priest nor scribe of Israel made that journey to Bethlehem. Even more tragic, they were afraid of Jesus. A baby threatened their ambitions and plans for the future.
This contrast between kings gives us an example of fear which leads to self-inflicted isolation and a living death. But we also have the beautiful example of a radical humility which leads to true liberation and freedom of heart. We know which example to follow: the way of the magi.
Ultimately, it’s the example of Christ we’re invited to follow. Unknown to the magi at the time, these kings were already becoming like the Lord whom they adored. Jesus, before them, emptied himself, and descended from his kingdom, in order to seek each one of us out. He left behind him his wealth, power, and authority, and entered into the poverty of the desert that is this world. He made himself vulnerable to the hostility of rebellious evildoers. He made himself a slave, and subjected himself to the authority worldly kings. In the end, he even entered into the isolation of death, for our salvation.
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. We celebrate the Christ Child’s first appearance to the gentiles, represented today by three magi. That ancient event required both God and king to leave behind their kingdoms. Today, we’re called to the same.
We’re gently invited to leave behind whatever kingdom it is that imprisons us, and courageously begin a new pilgrimage of faith. We venture beyond our palaces when Jesus waits for us at a stable. We relinquish our authority when obedience to Christ demands it. We embrace radical vulnerability when it leads to true liberation and peace of heart, ultimately experienced when seeing God face to face.
Epiphany, by Master of the Antwerp Adoration, c. 1520, oil on wood, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, [Public Domain]