Epiphany Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
The President danced The Magi’s gifts symbolize Jesus’ humanity, divinity, and kingship, and call us to Christian action.
It was a hot day in July 1969 on board an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Sailors with binoculars were searching the sky above the carrier.
Suddenly they let out a yell. Three orange and white parachutes exploded and bloomed in the blue sky. Dangling from them was a ball-like shape. It was the Apollo 11 space capsule.
Minutes later the capsule plunged into the warm waters of the Pacific. The splashdown climaxed a voyage that had put three men on the moon.
When the smiling astronauts emerged from the capsule, President Nixon danced a little jig on the carrier deck. He had flown halfway around the world to witness this history-making moment. He said the splashdown climaxed the greatest week in the world since creation.
In the exciting months ahead, the three astronauts made a goodwill tour around the world. They visited 23 countries in 45 days.
One of the “most striking and stirring moments of the trip,” said Astronaut Ed Aldrin, was the visit to the Vatican. The astronauts were especially moved by the unusual gifts presented them by Pope Paul VI.
Writing in his book Return to Earth, Ed Aldrin says:
His Holiness unveiled three magnificent porcelain statues of the Three Wise Men.
He said that these three men were directed to the infant Christ by looking at the stars and that we three also reached our destination by looking at the stars.
As the three astronauts admired the porcelain statues of the three wise men, their thoughts turned momentarily to the story we read in today’s gospel.
And like us, they too, no doubt, reflected on the deeper meaning of this story.
And, of course, every schoolchild knows what it is. It is Jesus’ manifestation of himself to the Gentile, or non-Jewish, world. That’s why we call the feast the “Epiphany:” The word epiphany means “manifestation.”
Because the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ manifestation of himself to the Gentile world, some countries celebrate it more solemnly than they do Christmas. The Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas.
How did the three wise men or astrologers from the East regard Jesus? What was their view of this child born under such remarkable circumstances? Matthew seems to have the same question in mind when he enumerates the gifts the wise men present to Jesus. Matthew writes:
They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.
Ancients regarded gold as the king of metals. Therefore it made an ideal gift for a king. Christians interpret the gift of gold as standing for the kingship of Jesus.
Concerning Christ’s kingship, Paul writes in his Letter to the Ephesians:
[The Father] raised Christ from death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ rules there above all. . . . God put all things under Christ’s feet. Ephesians 1:20–22
And that brings us to the second gift: incense.
Ancients used incense in their worship. The aroma and the smoke rising heavenward spoke to them of gods and divinity. Christians interpret the gift of incense as standing for the divinity of Jesus. Speaking of this divinity, the Letter to the Hebrews says:
[Jesus] reflects the brightness of God’s glory and is the exact likeness of God’s own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. Hebrews 1:3
This brings us to the final gift: myrrh. Ancients used myrrh to prepare the dead for burial. Recall that the women brought myrrh to the tomb of Jesus. Christians interpret the gift of myrrh as standing for the humanity of Jesus. Speaking of Jesus’ humanity, Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians:
[Jesus] always had the nature of God, but he. . . became like man. . . . He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death his death on the cross. Phillipians 2:6–8
Over 15 centuries ago Saint Peter Chrysologus spoke of today’s feast in these terms:
Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man. One whom the whole universe can’t contain is now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, and myrrh for one who is to die.
Practically, what does all this mean for us here in this church today?
It means this we must continue in our time what Jesus began in his. If the message of Jesus is to be made known to all nations, it must be through our efforts.
We must share with them the “good news” that Jesus, the Son of God, took flesh and lived among us.
We must share with them the “good news” that Jesus entered history not just for Jews but for all peoples.
We must share with them the “good news” that Jesus came to inaugurate God’s kingdom. He came to set up a new world order, one in which there would be no more grief, no more sorrow, no more pain one in which the needy person would find a loving friend, where before he found only a stranger in the night.
This is the “good news” that we must carry into the world. This is the practical message of the Feast of the Epiphany. It is a message that calls each one of us to Christian action.
Let’s close with these words. They were written by an unknown Christian and sum up, in beautiful imagery, the practical message of the Epiphany:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, the work of Christmas begins:
to feed the hungry, to release the prisoners, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music with the heart.
Series II Epiphany Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
The parable The search led the Magi from stars in the heavens to a poor couple in a cave in a hillside.
John Donne was a famous writer in 17th-century England. One of his stories concerns a man who is searching for God. I’d like to share an adapted version of the story with you. One day the hero of the story gets the idea that God lives on top of a tall mountain at the far end of the world. So he sets out to find the mountain and to climb it.
After a difficult and dangerous journey through great forests and dense jungles, the man arrives at the mountain. As he stands there looking at it, he sees that it is much steeper and taller than he had ever dreamed.
But because he wants to find God more than anything else, this does not discourage the man.
Before beginning his climb, he studies the mountain carefully from all four sides. He concludes that the best route up the mountain is by the east side.
The next morning at the crack of dawn, the man begins his climb up the east side of the mountain.
It so happens that about the time that the man begins to climb the mountain, God, who indeed does live on top of it, begins to think to himself, “I love my people so much. What can I do to show them my great love?”
Then God gets an idea. He decides he will descend the mountain and live among his people as one of them. So God studies all four sides of the mountain and concludes that the best route down it is by the west side.
The next morning at the crack of dawn, God begins his descent.
Thus it happens that as the man is climbing up the east side of the mountain, God is climbing down the west side. As luck would have it, the two pass on opposite sides of the mountain.
When the man reaches the top of the mountain, he finds it empty. He is crestfallen. He thinks, “God doesn’t live here after all.”
He even begins to think to himself, “Maybe God doesn’t exist at all. If he doesn’t live on top of the mountain, where does he live?”
The man falls on his face and begins to weep. After a good cry, he sits up and asks himself:
Why should I go back down the mountain? Why should I make the long, dangerous journey back to my village? There’s nothing there but poor, ignorant people. It would be far better to stay on top of the mountain, alone, than to go back there.
And that’s where the story ends. John Donne ends his story without telling us what the man decided to do.
Donne intended his story to be a parable for the people of his time. Many of them were searching for God. They searched for him on mountaintops; they searched for him in deserts; they searched for him at the ends of the earth. But they never found God.
And when they didn’t find God, they became discouraged. Like the man in Donne’s story, many concluded that God didn’t even exist.
To these men and women Donne was saying that God does not dwell on mountaintops, or in the midst of deserts, or at the ends of the earth. God dwells among his people. He lives in the towns and cities of the world.
This is the great message of Christmas. God came down from heaven and took up residence among his people. That is where we will find him. That is where we must look for him.
There’s an old poem about a parish priest who climbed a high church steeple to be nearer God so that he could better hear God’s word and pass it on to the people.
But the higher the priest climbed, the further from God he seemed to get. Finally, in desperation, the priest cried out from the very top of the steeple, “God, speak to me! God, where are you?”
And at that moment the priest heard a voice crying out from far below, “My son, here I am! Down here on earth among my people.” This brings us to the feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today. It celebrates the coming of some wise men from the East to honor Jesus.
These wise men, called Magi, were the instructors of Persian kings. They were the most learned men of their time.
Their learning told them that a great king was about to be born in the world. So one night, when they saw a strange star make a strange movement, they set out to follow it. Their search led them not to a mountaintop, nor to the midst of a desert. Rather, it led them to a tiny village of poor, ignorant people. It led them to a cave in a hillside.
And here’s where John Donne’s story helps us better understand the two important lessons of Christmas and today’s feast.
The first lesson is that God has truly come down from heaven to live among his people. And the second lesson is that the people among whom God chose to live were not saints in monasteries, intellectuals in universities, or kings in palaces. He chose to dwell among the poor, the homeless, and the hungry.
If we are to find God in our own world today, we must look for him in the same place that the Magi found him not among the great and the powerful, but among the lowly and the powerless.
If we don’t heed this message of today’s feast, we risk being like the man in Donne’s parable. We risk being like the people for whom Donne wrote his parable.
If we are to find Jesus in our world, we must look among the poor, the hungry, and the homeless.
Recall the famous passage in Matthew’s Gospel, when the king says to the people on his left:
“I was hungry . . . thirsty . . . [homeless] . . . sick and in prison but you would not take care of me. . . . [W]henever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.” Matthew 25:42–45
Let’s close with a poem that sums up the message of Christmas in practical terms:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to feed the hungry, to release the prisoners, to rebuild the nations,to bring peace among brothers, to make music with the heart. Author unknown
Series III Epiphany Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Epiphany Manifestation of God to all, not just the Jews.
We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him. Matthew 2:2 Not long ago, the editor of the Catholic Digest received a letter from a rancher in Oregon.
He told how one day he felt moved to leave the house to do some meditating. Getting into his pickup truck, he drove slowly across his ranch, reflecting as he went. At one point in his meditation, he said:
God, I know you love me, but it would be nice . . . if you would tell me so.
Shortly after speaking those words, he entered a wooded area. Suddenly, he noticed a shining object under a tree some distance away. Stopping his pickup, he got out and went over to check it out.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a Mylar balloon that had landed on his ranch from who knows where.
Then he noticed it had writing on it. He bent over and picked it up to see what it said. There, surrounded by red roses, were the words “I Love You.
Whether that story is simply about a splendid coincidence, or just one of those rare sweet surprises, that rancher will never know.
But this much is certain: That story makes a beautiful parable of what it is that we celebrate on the feast of the Epiphany.
Most Catholics know that the word epiphany means “manifestation.” The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the “manifestation” of God’s love for the human family, as expressed in the birth of Jesus among us.
Some countries celebrate the feast with even greater solemnity than they celebrate Christmas. This is because they regard the Epiphany as the Gentile Christmas.
Historians tell us that about the time of Jesus’ birth, something strange began to happen, both in the Jewish and the Gentile world. A widespread longing and expectancy developed among the ordinary people.
Two famous Roman historians testify to it: Tacitus in his Histories and Seutonius in his Life of Vespasian.
Commenting on this expectancy, the highly respected modern scholar C. H. Dodd writes:
There was something of a religious faith about it. . . . It was associated with the figure of a “savior”. . . with something of divinity about him. Millions of subjects in Rome saw the emperor [Augustus Caesar] . . . as the divine deliverer. The Founder of Christianity
A similar expectancy and longing was stirring also among the Jewish masses. Unlike the Romans, Jews could pinpoint the reason for their expectancy.
Centuries before, the great God of Israel manifested himself to Moses and rescued their ancestors from oppression in Egypt.
Now there was a growing longing and expectancy that the great God of Israel would manifest himself again and rescue them from Roman oppression.
And so in both the Jewish and the Gentile worlds, there was a mysterious expectancy of some great epiphany. Let’s return to the story of the Oregon rancher. His prayer for some kind of an epiphany was simply an echo of those prayers expressed by people in ancient times:
God, I know you love me, but it would be nice . . . if you would tell me so. I t is against this background that we must read today’s Gospel.
It tells how Magi from the East saw, shining in the midnight sky, a bright object much like the one that rancher saw shining in the woods. And like the rancher, they too, decided to check it out.
The Magi, who studied such things, knew that it could signal the birth of some great new king. And so they set forth to investigate.
The rest of the story, we all know. It is this story that we celebrate on the feast of the Epiphany. It is the story of a marvelous manifestation of God’s love for the human race, in the birth of Christ the King.
This brings us to a practical application of the Magi story to our lives.
Like the Oregon rancher, many people today crave some epiphany of God’s love.
We Christians are called to be that epiphany. We are called to be a star in the darkness of our world, pointing the way to God and God’s love. Saint Paul coined this very image, saying to the Christians of his time: “You [must] shine like stars in the sky.” Philippians 2:15
And Jesus used a similar image in his Sermon on the Mount, saying to his followers,
“Your light must shine before others that they may . . . glorify your heavenly Father.” Matthew 5:16
And so the feast of the Epiphany invites us to inventory how well our lives are serving as stars pointing the way to God and to God’s love.
Concretely, what does this mean? It means that every time we forgive someone who has treated us unjustly, a star lights up the darkness of our world, pointing the way to God.
Every time we open the door of our hearts to the lonely and the homeless, a star lights up the darkness in our world, pointing the way to God.
Every time we reach out to the needy, a star shines through the darkness, pointing the way to God. This is what the feast of the Epiphany is all about.
It is not just the story of a star that lit up the midnight sky centuries ago. It is also the story of how God calls us to be stars lighting up the midnight sky of our modern world and leading other magi to Jesus. This is the Good News contain in today’s Mass readings.
This is the Good News that we celebrate in today’s liturgy. It is the Good News that we are called to be epiphanies or manifestations of God and God’s love in our modern world.