Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
This weekend, the Church celebrates the ancient Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, commemorating, and reflecting upon, the visit of magi “from the East” to the crib side of the newborn Savior.
For the first reading, the Church presents a passage from the third and last section of Isaiah. After four generations of exile in Babylon, survivors, or descendants of survivors, of the long past Babylonian conquest of the Holy Land finally were able to return to their homeland.
When Persia in turn overtook Babylonia, Persia’s King Cyrus allowed the exiles to leave Babylon and to return to the Holy Land. Homecoming was bittersweet. The land to which they returned after so many years was desolate and unyielding.
The prophets insisted that, despite this desolation, times would change for the better, because God would not forget the Chosen People.
Thus, this reading rejoices in God’s salvation. He will vindicate the people. In justice and mercy, God will come. The prophecy predicts a great new day!
For the second reading, the Church offers us a selection from the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is a frank and direct statement that God intends salvation also for the Gentiles, not only for the Chosen People.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes as the last reading. Among the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke refer to the conception, birth, and very early life of Jesus. Mark and John are silent on these subjects.
Only Matthew has the story of the magi. This story is one of the most profound and expressive revelations in the New Testament. To understand it requires recognizing the symbols and images contained in the passage.
First, the Gospel speaks of visitors “from the East” in the story. “From the East” was a phrase referring to much more than a direction of the compass. It meant a distant and unknown place. It was a term of mystery.
These visitors came from a place totally outside the Holy Land and Jewish culture and religion.
Who and what were they? Scholars cannot agree, and have not agreed, on a description for them. Some think that they were astrologers in a time when astrology fascinated everyone and was heavily associated with theology and philosophy. Others think they were nobles or kings. Another term is magi, but this term’s meaning is unclear.
Whatever the answer, they were gifted, learned, resourced, and very sincere people from someplace far away … strangers to Jews … driven by the wish to know God. Art and legend have seen them over the centuries as three in number.
Herod tried to frustrate their search hoping to remove any threat to his corrupt control over the people, fearful that a “newborn king” might be a rival. Looking for clues, he discovered that according to the Scriptures, the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. This discovery put the infant Lord and the Holy Innocents in jeopardy.
Overall, the message is powerful. The magi, only humans, yearn for God but cannot find God on their own. God assists them with a star in the sky and even through the evil Herod.
This wondrous feast teaches us a vital lesson. The magi were humans, lost and not knowing where to go. We are humans often not knowing where to go. We even are sinners, choosing to distance ourselves from God. We are helpless in the last analysis.
The magi remind us to consider what is truly important in life. Too often people allow themselves to look for rewards in earthly terms. Inevitably, they are disappointed.
The magi knew that something wonderful, beautiful, and fulfilling was in life, in their lives, if they could find it. In Jesus, an infant, but Son of God, they found it, guided by the star, warned of danger.
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