The Epiphany of the Lord

“[The magi] were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

-Matthew 2:10-11

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. adoration-of-the-magiWe remember the day when the three magi followed the star to the baby Jesus, presenting gifts to the Word-made-flesh. Celebration of this solemnity can be dated back to the mid-4th century. This is truly a day to celebrate the ways in which Christ appeared to us 2000 years ago. This cannot be seen as just some other lazy Sunday, on which we sit back and do nothing. We need to remember Christ’s Incarnation, and the visit of the magi to this God-man. A good way to remember is by reflecting on the various characteristics of Christ and His coming revealed by this solemn feast.

Firstly, I just want to point out something widely misunderstood. The above excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew points out that the magi entered a house. For someone even slightly familiar with the story of the Nativity, it is known that Mary and Joseph were unable to find a house or inn in which to stay when she gave birth. They had to stay in a stable, where they placed baby Jesus into a manger. Therefore, from this, we understand that this is not the same night as the birth of Christ and the visit of the shepherds. Maybe this took place after Christ was presented in the Temple. What is known is that the Holy Family still remained in the Bethlehem, for the Star that led the magi was said to lead them to Bethlehem. (It is referred to as the ‘Star of Bethlehem.’) Following Christ’s presentation, the visit of the magi, then, would reveal a certain ordinariness of the Person of Christ. He is a human, living in a house and following the Jewish prescriptions.

Next, let’s look at those men who came to the Christ-child: the three magi from the East. In Scripture, it says nothing about there being only three magi. Through Tradition, it is widely accepted that there would be three magi, due to the fact that Christ receives the three gifts from the magi. Tradition and legends also provide us with the names of these three magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. [These traditions are those accepted by theThree Magi Western church, chiefly. The Eastern churches accept traditions of different numbers and different names for the magi.] The magi have been believed to belong to the priestly caste of the Eastern religion of Zoroastrianism. They were foreigners from ‘the East.’ (Where in the East does not seem to matter. Therefore, these magi were considered representatives of the Gentile (non-Jewish) world. Much of the Old Testament outlines the reality of Israel as the Chosen People. Occasionally, they would bring Gentiles into their nation, but God’s plan for relationship was mostly for the nation of Israel, for the Jewish people. From the beginning of His life, Christ revealed this universal reality of His ministry. God became man in order to bring all people to Himself. That is why Christ established the Church: in order to bring all people to Himself in His Body. The fact that these priests visited Christ also reveals His priestly nature.

Next, we can reflect on the gifts presented by these three magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you’ve heard these gifts grouped together since your childhood, it can be easy to discount their significance. gold-frankincense-and-myrrhHowever, these gifts all reveal something different about the Person of Christ. Gold is not just an ordinary thing that just anybody will have. Gold is kingly (just think of Midas). Therefore, the gift of gold reveals the kingly mission of Christ. Next comes frankincense. Frankincense is a perfume, often considered a symbol of deity. Therefore, the gift of frankincense reveals Christ’s nature and identity as the Godhead. Lastly comes myrrh. Myrrh is an oil used for anointing and embalming the body. Therefore, myrrh has been a symbol for the death and morality of man. For Christ in particular, the gift of myrrh reveals the nature and identity as fully human. Those three characteristics of Christ – king, God, and human – are commonly understood by an examination of the visit of the magi.

Another characteristic of Christ can be unearthed through deeper reflection. There are only two places in the whole of Scriptures where frankincense and myrrh are listed together: Matthew and Song of Songs. The verse from Matthew was quoted above. The other place is Song of Songs. (4:6 – “Until the day grows cool and the shadows flee, I shall go to the mountain of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense.”) (4:14 – “spikenard and saffron, Sweet cane and cinnamon, with all kinds of frankincense; Myrrh and aloes, with all the finest spices.”) This presence in the Song of Songs implies a nuptial reality of ‘frankincense and myrrh.’ Therefore, the presentation of frankincense and myrrh reveals the certain nuptial reality of the recipient. Because He receives frankincense and myrrh, Christ is revealed as the Bridegroom (of whom the Church is the Bride).

Lastly, we can reflect on the Star of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem was said to lead the Star-of-Bethlehemmagi to the child Jesus, for the Messiah was to be born there in Bethlehem. Some often see the Star as a problem in confirming the Biblical accounts of the Nativity and following. However, people have researched the astronomy and the science revolving the idea of the Star. Much has been found to confirm its reality. More has been found than I could say here. A movie was made that discussed the research made. Ultimately, the reality of the Star reveals Christ as the fulfillment of the prophets, being the Prophet. Micah foretold:

But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah least among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, Then the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. (Micah 5:1-2)

Not only was Christ’s birth foretold to be in Bethlehem. It was also foretold that His birth would mark when all people would begin to be brought back to Himself. Therefore, the visit of the magi is only appropriate, symbolizing that beginning foretold by the Prophet Micah.

In celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, the Church recognizes Christ’s humanity, divinity, kingship, priesthood, as Bridegroom, and as Prophet. We celebrate the many different ways Christ interacts with humanity as a whole and with us as individuals. Christ came for all of humanity. That is seen, recognized, and appreciated on this holy day! Praise the Lord for this Solemnity, on which we can remember all of these different aspects of His reality as Priest, Prophet, King, Bridegroom, Human, and God.

 “Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.”

-Matthew 7:7

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Duc In Altum

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