The proclamation of the date of Easter and the other movable feasts on Epiphany dates from a time when calendars were not readily available. It was necessary to make known the date of Easter in advance, since many celebrations of the liturgical year depend on its date. The number of Sundays that follow Epiphany, the date of Ash Wednesday, and the number of Sundays that follow Pentecost are all computed in relation to Easter.

Although calendars now give the date of Easter and the other feasts in the liturgical year for many years in advance, the Epiphany proclamation still has value. It is a reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of the Lord in the liturgical year and the importance of the great mysteries of faith which are celebrated each year.

This sung revelation of simple dates throughout the year is also a reminder of the great mystery we celebrate today:  the manifestation of our God in human flesh.  Just as the dates of Easter, Ascension, etc. are announced to the Masses every year on Epiphany, so too the person of Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is announced as the means of salvation to peoples of every nation, tribe, and tongue.

Since the fourth century, Christians in the West have celebrated the feast of Epiphany in this same spirit of manifestation.  And, from the fourth century to the twentieth century, three manifestations of the Lord were celebrated on this day:

  1. The Adoration of the Magi: The manifestation of the God-man to the Gentile nations.
  2. The Baptism of the Lord: The manifestation of Jesus as Son of God, baptized by the Holy Spirit.
  3. The Wedding at Cana: The manifestation of the bridegroom of the Church as he performs his first miracle of turning water into wine.

Today, we will focus on this first mystery, the Adoration of the Magi.

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Roman liturgy of the twenty-first century, the adoration of the Magi dominates this feast, and the new-born King is revealed not only as the “light of Jerusalem” in the first reading from Isaiah,[1] but also as the Lumen Gentium, the Light of the Nations to whom all kings will pay homage and whom all nations will serve.[2] Finally, in the gospel, the Magi as representatives of the Gentile nations come to pay homage to “the Christ” and prostrate themselves in adoration when they find him. Self-revelation is always ordered to communion, and divine self-revelation is always ordered ultimately to adoration of the Triune God.

Whereas the Jewish shepherds, consistent with God revealing himself to his Chosen People directly or through heavenly messengers, received the announcement of the Messiah’s birth through angels, the Magi, representatives of the Gentile nations are initially led to the child who is “Light from Light” more indirectly, by the guidance of a star.

The interpretation of the gifts offered by the Magi (incense for God, gold for a King, and myrrh prefiguring the Lord’s passion) dates from at least the first half of the fifth century and is well known, but the depiction of the Magi, both in the East and in the West, is worth noting as well. The oldest presentations of the Three Kings represent them as: an old king with a grey beard, and younger king with a brown beard, and an even younger king with no beard. This is most easily found in the ancient Eastern icons of the Nativity which are painted according to specific rules, but it can be found in ancient western presentations of the Three Kings as well. In the West, by the 16thcentury, as the European exploration of sub-Saharan Africa expanded, the youngest king was often replaced by a black king. The iconological interpretation of the Three Kings is that God continues to reveal himself no matter how young or how old one is, no matter at what stage of life one is, and no matter where one comes from. It is a message of divine revelation to all peoples of all times.

Still, we may wonder, who were the Magi? And why did they come to adore this child who was not from their country nor shared their religion?  The Magi…we sometimes call them wise men, and so they were.  Many scholars say that they were astronomers.  We assume this fact because they gazed into the night sky and perceived that Christmas star which guided them westward until they reached Judea.  Yes, they would have had a technical knowledge of the stars, planets, and their movements.  But I would propose that this is what makes them smart—not what makes them wise.

Furthermore, the Magi knew Jewish Scripture. This I find astonishing because the Magi themselves were not Jews.  Yet, they knew the prophesies of the prophets of Israel. But this too, makes them merely smart; what makes them wise is that they looked for the signs of their fulfillment.  They were vigilant!

Contrast the Magi with the high priests and scribes of Israel.  They also knew the prophesies, but they seemed not to be paying attention.  They were not watching for the fulfillment of the prophecies.

Finally, the Magi knew their way around the ancient world, and they knew how to travel the back roads and shortcuts.  But again, this just makes them smart.  They were wise because they exercised the virtue of prudence.  They understood the evil intentions of King Herod, and decided not to be party to his murderous plot.  They surely informed the Holy Family of the evil Herod’s shock and surprise that a new King had been born, and they most certainly advised Joseph that he would not be safe for long in quiet Bethlehem.  We know that, not long after Jesus’ birth, Joseph would lead Mary and Jesus into Egypt, where they would remain until it was safe to return and start a new life in Mary’s hometown.  We also know of what befell the innocent children who, in the eyes of the powerful, had the misfortune of being born at an inconvenient time and in an inconvenient place.

What drove these men from the East to journey from far-off lands to adore this little child?  Wisdom.  The Magi were wise because they were searching, and what they were searching for was wisdom.  They were looking for the enduring Truth that holds all creation together.  They were looking for the Divine Logos.  They were looking for the deep wisdom that existed before the creation of the world.  The Magi were looking for God.

The French mathematician and writer Blaise Pascal once wrote that there are three types of people in the world:

  1. Those who seek God and find him. These are the wise and happy.
  2. Those who seek God and do not find him. These are the wise and unhappy.
  3. Those who neither seek God nor find him. These are unwise and unhappy.

So many people in our day are searching.

So many people in our day are not searching.

We know that if we earnestly seek God with our hearts, if we ask for his grace and mercy, and if we knock at his door, then it shall be opened in due time.  Our God is a God who has manifested himself to humanity and continues to manifest himself to those who seek truth, wisdom, and goodness.

Every Advent we are urged to stay awake and be vigilant.  On Epiphany, our hopes and desires are made manifest in this little child, Christ the Lord.  Those who watch, like the Magi, will find Jesus.  I pray that you and your loved ones found Jesus this Christmas, and that you find him here today.  Come, let us adore.

Bibliography

This homily contains significant excerpts from the following sources.

Belsole, Rev. Kurt, OSB.  “God Triumphed in the Person of Christ,” Reflections on the Liturgical Year, Part II:  The Epiphany Mystery.

USCCB.  http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/christmas/announcement-of-easter-and-the-moveable-feasts.cfm.  Accessed 6 January 2018.

[1] Isaiah 60:1

[2] Psalm 72