The Epiphany readings are about travel, journey and ultimately sharing Christ’s light. But it is not easy as the opponents of Christ are present. Link to the readings:
Epiphany means “appearance of the Lord.” In the East, where it started, this feast was instituted not to recall the Magi, but the birth of Jesus, the Christmas, the appearance of the light. In the West—where Christmas was celebrated on December 25—it was received in the fourth century and became the feast of the “manifestation of the light of the Lord” to the Gentiles and the universal call to all people to salvation in Christ. Magi reveal the truth of John 1:9 – the true of God, coming into the world, enlightens all creation and every person. Every child is an incarnation of our beloved Savior.
The light image is significant. The word used for the “East” in the Gospel , “anatolai (plural)/anatole (singular)”, really means “the rising,” that is, the rising of the sun (our word “orient” comes from a Latin word with the same meaning: oriens). The word “anatole” would have had a number of resonances for the first Greek-speaking, Jewish-Christian hearers of Matthew’s story.
First, the rising of the sun in the East readily suggests the imagery of light, which is often associated with salvation in the Bible. The Old Testament reading for the day (Isaiah 60:1-6), to which the magi story clearly alludes (see especially verses 5-6), begins with the words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Isaiah’s vision of salvation, the light of the Lord shined, includes a pilgrimage of the nations, who will come to Israel’s light, to worship the God of Israel, bringing their gifts. With the story of the Magi, Matthew is telling us that this prophecy is fulfilled: guided by the light of the Messiah, the Gentiles (represented by the Magi) make their way to Jerusalem, to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. The popular piety applied to each of these gifts a symbolic meaning: gold indicates the recognition of Jesus as king, incense represents the adoration in front of his divinity, myrrh recalls his humanity—this fragrant resin will be remembered during the passion (Mk 15:23; Jn 19:39).
Even the story of the mounts was not invented for nothing. It is still the first reading today that speaks to us of “a troop of camels and dromedaries” that come from the East (Is 60:6). Unlike the shepherds who contemplated and rejoiced in front of the salvation that the Lord had revealed to them, the magi prostrated themselves in worship (v. 11). Their gesture recalls the court’s ceremony—the prostration and kissing of the feet of the king—or kissing the ground before the image of the deity. The pagans have therefore recognized as their king and their God, the child of Bethlehem and offered him their gifts.
The Isaiah reading is from the 3rd part of that book and is the reading for Epiphany because of its emphasis on the nations (Gentiles) bringing wealth to Jerusalem—and because of the mention of camels and gold and frankincense in verse 6 which makes it an especially good pairing with the story of the Wise Men in Matthew 2:1-12, the traditional Gospel reading for Epiphany.
In 587 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed and exiles led to Babylon. Years pass and the hope of return of the exiles from Babylon become increasingly more hopeless.
Darius, King of Persia, has permitted the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem. Chapter 60 starts with a call to “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (60:1). Joy, prosperity and salvation (“light”) are now in the city; God is with them; they will reflect the presence and power (“glory”) of God. In the Near East, dawn comes suddenly: dark almost instantly becomes day. Many peoples will live in “darkness” (v. 2, gloom, oppression) but Israel will be different: God will come to them, be present with them and act for them. Many nations will come to pay homage to God.
By 515 BCE some of the exiles have returned to Jerusalem. Jerusalem as still in ruin, no lights were on and from the desert and the sea people came but to plunder. However, they rebuilt the Temple. The return, however, was not without problems: the returnees found themselves in conflict with those who had remained in the country and who now owned the land, and there were further conflicts over the form of government that should be set up.
Despite the understandable dismay and bewilderment, Israel did not even think that the Lord had deceived them or not fulfill his promise. Even in the most difficult moments, the prophecy continued to be repeated: “The treasures of all nations will flow here” (Hg 2:7), “The kings of Tarshish and of the islands will bring offerings; the kings of the Arabia and Saba will offer tributes” (Ps 72:10)
The term mystery occurs twice in the Gospels—only in the famous phrase of Jesus to the Apostles: “To you is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Mk 4:11; Mt 13:11)—but it is used frequently in the letters of Paul and Revelation.
At the time of Jesus it was thought that God would reveal his arcane projects to some persons through dreams, visions, raptures in the sky.
In today’s reading, Paul says instead that the way to attain knowledge of the mystery is different.
Given charge of revealing the thoughts and plans of the Lord are not the visionaries, but the preachers, the apostles, the prophets of the Christian communities. They receive from God the gift of penetrating understanding of his mystery.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 5-6), the apostle finally clarifies what the mystery consists of: it is the salvation of all peoples. The legacy of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants is not an exclusive privilege of Israel, but is shared by all peoples. In the past generations not even the most careful people had understood this plan of God.
They were convinced that the pagan nations are like nothing before God, nothing and vanity (Is 40:17). But now, in Christ, God reveals that even the Gentiles are “fellow heirs” “partakers” of the promises and form, with the members of the chosen people, “one body” (v. 6).
Paul, the “very least of all the saints” (v. 8, for he persecuted Christians), has, in the paradoxical way of Christianity, become the apostle to the Gentiles, to bring us the news of the inexhaustible “riches” of Christ, and to have all understand that, in God’s plan established in the beginning, Gentiles are to form an integral part of the new Israel. It is through the church, the beneficiary of God’s gifts, that God’s saving ways (“wisdom”, v. 10) are to be made known to evil heavenly beings (“rulers and authorities”) who were thought before Christ’s death, to control humanity. This role of the church is part of God’s purpose, carried out in Christ. Faith in Christ gives us the ability to come into God’s presence boldly
This mystery of God has already been formulated by Paul in the previous chapter with moving words that are worth mentioning: “Remember—he says to the Ephesians—that you were without Christ, you did not belong to the community of Israel: the covenants of God and his promises were not for you; you had no hope and were without God in this world. But now, in Christ Jesus and by his blood, you who were once far off have come near.
For Christ is our peace; he who has made the two peoples one, destroying in his own flesh the wall—the hatred—which separated us, making peace. He came to proclaim peace; peace to you who were far off, peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:12-17).
The initial passage of th+is letter fits perfectly into the theme of this festival celebrating the appearance of the light of Christ to the Gentiles.
Matthew’s story is about “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.”
Herod’s fears are aroused because his dynasty may be ended. He consults the religious experts to find out where the magi should look for the Messiah. They answer with Scripture: they loosely blend Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2. At David’s anointing as king, the elders quote God as saying “he shall be shepherd of my people Israel”.
The sincerity of the magi’s worship of Jesus is contrasted with Herod’s insincere pledge to worship Jesus. In reality, King Herod will try to eliminate this newborn, rival “king of the Jews,” who threatens to usurp his title! Matthew probably has Jesus’ death already in view when he has the magi refer to Jesus as “the king of the Jews” (2:2) rather than as Christ (cf. 2:4), in anticipation of the charge under which Jesus will eventually be crucified (27:11, 29, 37)
The visit of the magi to “worship” (or “pay homage to”) Jesus alarms Herod, who, after he has been fooled by the magi (2:16), will resolve to kill all the (male) children in Bethlehem and environs two years and younger. Herod’s plot constitutes the reason for the holy family’s flight to Egypt and return. The flight to and return from Egypt together with the slaughter of the innocents serve to make Jesus into a type of both Moses (who was also delivered from a cruel tyrant; Exodus 1-2) and the nation of Israel as a whole (God’s “Son” whom he called out of Egypt; Matthew 2:15; Hosea 11:1). As such Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy and of the (hi)story of Israel. Later in Matthew Jesus will play the role of a new Moses (5:1) and of a new “Israel” in the wilderness who remains faithful to God in temptation (4:1-11). So also the story of the magi shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy
From the earliest days of the Church, the Magi in the reading from Matthew have aroused keen interest among the faithful. They were one of the favorite themes of the early Christian artists: sarcophagi and paintings appear more often with the same scene of the Nativity.
Christians were not satisfied with the limited information that can be found in the Gospel text. Too many details are missing: where they came from? How many were there? What were their names? What kind of transport did they use? What did they do after returning to their home countries? Where are they buried?
To answer these questions, many legends were born. It was said that they were kings. They were three: one came from Africa, one from Asia and one from Europe, and that one was black, one yellow and one white. Guided by the star, they met at the same point and then they walked together on the last stretch of the journey to Bethlehem. They were called Gaspar (the beardless youth and colorful) Melchior (the hoary old man with long beard), Balthazar (the mature man with beard). They were clearly the symbols of the three ages of life. They were served by camels and dromedaries for the trip. After returning home, when they had already reached the ripe old age of 120 years, one day they saw the star again. They departed and found themselves back together in a city of Anatolia, to celebrate the Christmas Mass. On the same day, they were happy and they died. Their remains went round the world: first in Constantinople, then to Milan until 1162, when they were transferred to the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.
To clarify the story, it was not said that there were three, and that they were magi, not kings. They had to belong to the category of diviners, astrologers, well known and appreciated people in antiquity for their wisdom, ability to interpret dreams, predict the future and read the will of God through the ordinary or extraordinary events of life.
There is no wonder that Matthew has introduced the magi in his story. He has chosen them as a symbol of all the pagans that, before the Jews themselves, opened their eyes to the light of Christ.
With respect to the star, it was widely believed that the birth of a great person was accompanied by the appearance in the sky of his star: big for the wealthy, tiny for the poor, blurry for the weak. The appearance of a comet was thought to be a sign of the advent of a new emperor.
The star referred to by Matthew is not to be found in heaven, but in the Bible.
In Numbers 22–24 there was a curious story of Balaam and his talking donkey. Balaam was a soothsayer, a magus of the East, just like the ones mentioned in the Gospel today. One day he unwittingly makes a prophecy: “I see it but it is not an event that will happen shortly; I behold him but not near. A star shall come forth from Jacob, a king, born of Israel, rises… One of Jacob will dominate over his enemies” (Num 24:17-19).
So Balaam, “the man of penetrating eye” (Num 24:3) spoke, about 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Since then, the Israelites began to anxiously wait for the rising of this star that was none other than the Messiah himself.
Presenting to us the wise men of the East who see the star, Matthew wants to tell his us: from the descendant of Jacob the expected deliverer rose. It is Jesus. He is the star.