By John Bergsma
John Bergsma is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. A former Protestant pastor, Dr. Bergsma has authored several books on Scripture and the Catholic faith, including The Word of the Lord series.
The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon”; and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Therefore, the “Epiphany” refers to the divinity of Jesus “shining upon” the earth. In other words, it is the manifestation of his divine nature.
The Feast of the Epiphany has an interesting history and arose from the commemoration of various events in the childhood or early ministry of Our Lord, in which his divinity was revealed. Three events in particular were identified by the early Church: the visit of the magi, the baptism of the Lord, and the changing of the water to wine at Cana. In various local churches, days to remember these events were set aside shortly after the Feast of the Nativity. To confuse the situation further, some local churches used the term “Epiphany” to refer to the commemoration of the Nativity itself. However, in time, the Latin rite placed the Nativity on December 25 and settled on the Visit of the Magi as the event to be commemorated as the “Epiphany” twelve days later, on January 6. This gave us the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas,” that is, the time between Christmas and Epiphany.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. Matthew 2:1–12
The Gospel Reading is the account of the arrival of the magi (wise men) to worship the child Jesus. The magi were learned men, the academics or scientists of their day. Their knowledge base would have included the fundamentals of astronomy, which was not distinct from astrology in antiquity. Different constellations were associated with various ethnic groups, and there was a certain interpretive “language” that identified astronomical phenomena with historical events. Providentially, the astronomical events around the time of Our Lord’s birth indicated a new royal line among the Jews in the interpretive schema employed by these eastern sages.
The character of Herod in our Gospel Reading fits the personality of Herod as recorded by ancient historians. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod was a brutal tyrant, perhaps partly insane, who executed large numbers of political opponents as well as members of his own family, including several of his wives and sons. A Machiavellian before Machiavelli, Herod’s primary goal in life was to maintain his own power, and he was constantly vigilant against possible threats to it, especially from those who claimed to fulfill the royal prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures. He was supremely paranoid, and his erratic behavior inspired fear among those who had to govern the nation with him. No doubt much of the city and his court were not pleased at the arrival of the magi with their “politically incorrect” inquiries about a newborn king. These inquiries would provoke Herod’s paranoia; and if Herod became disturbed, people would die.
The gifts that the magi bring are rich in biblical symbolism. As stated above, frankincense and myrrh are only mentioned together in the Old Testament in the Song of Songs, where they are nuptial perfumes employed by Solomon and his bride to prepare for their marriage. Here in Matthew, Jesus is being marked out as Bridegroom King from his birth.
At the same time, “gold and frankincense” are only mentioned together in the Scriptures in the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6, part of our First Reading. So, there is an obvious association of Jesus with the “light” predicted by Isaiah, which is associated with the miraculous star that brings the magi to the Christ child.
Speaking of this star, numerous suggestions—some quite intriguing—have been made over the years for the identification of this celestial object. However, some of the Church Fathers (e.g., Origen) already pointed out that the star in question had to be a supernatural object, since natural stars do not move or stand still, nor are they able to mark a terrestrial location as small as Bethlehem, much less an individual house. Without being dogmatic on the issue, I believe the star was a supernatural appearance to these magi. God communicated to them using a language they understood: the language of the stars.
As we ponder the meaning of these sacred readings for ourselves this weekend, we are struck first by the fulfillment of the prophecies of the gathering of the nations to Christ. Now at the beginning of the third millennium, one in three inhabitants of the globe identifies himself or herself as a follower of Christ, a total of 2.4 billion, of whom about half are Catholics. Even when the last New Testament writer wrote, the population of Christians was, at best, in the tens of thousands, mostly Greek-speaking and concentrated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The incredible expansion of this “Jewish cult” to lands unknown would have seen absurd in those ancient days.
In modern times, the faith has exploded in areas that were once closed to the Church. Sub-Saharan Africa, in which the numbers of Christians were negligible even a hundred years ago, is now around 60 percent Christian. Though there is always and at all times an ongoing spiritual battle, it is true that a multitude from all nations has gathered to the Light.
On another level, we see in the magi representatives of the scholars and academics, those who give their lives to learning, to the acquisition of wisdom. These magi, however, are not “wise guys” but wise men; that is, they demonstrate a true wisdom. In some way (we do not know how clearly), they saw in the child Jesus a gift of God to mankind, a sign of the love of God for humanity. True wisdom recognizes wisdom’s limits. There is something higher than wisdom, and that is love (1 Cor 13:1–13). Love is the ultimate wisdom. These intellectuals get down on their knees and bow before something greater than themselves: the Love of God, a Love which is as humble and unthreatening as a baby in his mother’s lap. Far from detracting from their wisdom, their humility in the face of Love enhances it.
Those who give their lives in pursuit of learning need to avoid the trap of intellectual pride in order to be of any good to their fellow human beings. The magi are scholars who bow the intellect before the reality of love and humility. We should follow their example.
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The Catholic Lectionary guides us through the liturgical year, presenting Old and New Testament readings that together reveal God’s unfolding plan for our salvation. In The Word of the Lord series, biblical scholar Dr. John Bergsma provides commentary alongside each Sunday’s readings.