The word Epiphany, which means appearance or manifestation, marks Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles. "Epiphany" refers to God’s self-revelation as well as the revelation of Jesus as His Son. It is a celebration older than the feast of Christmas, having originated in the East in the late second century. The feast commemorates the coming of the Magi, Three Wise Men, as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
More than 500 years before Christ’s birth, God had promised, through his prophet Isaiah, that he was going to lead all the nations to Jerusalem to share in the light of salvation. He even promised that they would bring gold and incense. And through a different prophet, the Psalmist, he made the same promise in different words "the kings of Tarshish and the coasts will pay him tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts".
In spite of 500 years of wars and migrations and historical turbulence that re-wrote the map of the civilized world three different times, GOD DOES WHAT HE SAID HE WOULD DO: in the Three Wise Men the nations enter into the light of salvation, bringing gifts.
The sixth century Italian tradition that there were three magi – Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior – is based on the fact that three gifts are mentioned in Matthew’s gospel: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Orthodox Church holds that the Magi consisted of twelve kings, corresponding in number to the twelve tribes of Israel. Commentary on the Torah by Jewish rabbis suggested that a star appeared in the sky at the birth of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Likewise, in the Book of Numbers, the prophet Balaam speaks of "a star that shall come out of Jacob." Stars were believed to be signs from God, announcing important events. So when the kings “saw his star at its rising” they understood it to mean the birth of a King, and went to pay him homage.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh may be thought of as prophesying Jesus’ future. Gold was a gift for kings; frankincense was offered to God in Temple worship (Ex. 30:37); and myrrh was used by the High Priest in the anointing oil (Ex. 30:23) and to prepare bodies for burial. This gift of myrrh pointed out that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb whose death restored life. These gifts were not only expensive but portable.
The feast of Epiphany invites us to see ourselves as images of the Magi, a people on a journey to Christ. Today’s gospel also tells us the story of the magi’s encounter with the evil King Herod. This encounter symbolizes three reactions to Jesus’ birth: hatred, indifference, and adoration.
Hatred: King Herod considered Jesus a potential threat to his kingship. He was a cruel and selfish king who murdered his mother-in-law, wife and three children on suspicion that they had plotted against him. Later, the Scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus, because he criticized them and tried to reform some of their practices. Today, many oppose Christ and his Church from selfish motives, evil ways and unjust lives. Children still have Herods to fear. The United States aborts annually one million and a half innocents.
Indifference: the Scribes, Pharisees and the Jewish priests knew that there were nearly 500 prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the promised Messiah. They were able to tell Herod the exact time and place of Jesus’ birth. They were in the habit of concluding their reading from the prophets on the Sabbath day by saying, “We shall now pray for the speedy arrival of the Messiah.” Unfortunately, they were more interested in their own selfish gains than in discovering the truth. Hence, they refused to go and see the child Jesus — even though Bethlehem was quite close to Jerusalem. Today many Christians remind us of this group. They practice their religion from selfish motives such as political power, prestige and recognition by society. They ignore Jesus’ teachings in their private lives.
Adoration: This group was composed of the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds offered the only gifts they had: love, tears of joy, and probably woolen clothes and milk from their sheep. The Magi offered gold, in recognition of Jesus as the king of the Jews; frankincense, in acknowledgment that he was God, and myrrh as a symbol of his human nature.
Let us make sure that we belong to the third group. Let us worship Jesus every day at Mass with the gold of our love, the myrrh of our humility and the frankincense of our adoration. Let us offer our very selves, promising God that we will use His blessings by doing good to our fellow men. In the Christmas stable, the magi were themselves transformed. What Christ wants from us is a similar transformation, a reformation of ourselves. Just as the Wise Men returned home to begin the work of transforming their own kingdoms, we too must go home and transform the world around us. Let us choose a better path for our lives. Just as the Magi chose another route to return to their home, let us choose a better way of life, abstaining from proud and impure thoughts, evil habits and selfish behavior. Let us become the Star, leading others to Jesus, as the star led the Magi to Him. We can remove the darkness of evil around us by being at least like candles, radiating Jesus’ love by selfless service, unconditional forgiveness and compassionate care. Thus let us become manifestations of Jesus’ presence for others.
Like the Magi, let us offer Jesus our gifts on this feast of Epiphany. The first gift might be friendship with God. After all, the whole point of Christmas is that God’s son became one of us, to redeem us and call us friends. God wants our friendship in the form of wholehearted love and devotion. A second gift might be friendship with others. This kind of friendship can be costly. The price it exacts is vulnerability and openness to others. The good news, however, is that in offering friendship to others, we will receive many blessings in return. A third gift might be the gift of reconciliation. This is the gift of repairing damaged relationships. It requires honesty, humility, understanding, forgiveness and patience. The fourth gift of this season is the gift of peace: the seeking of God’s peace in our own lives through prayer, sacramental life and daily meditation on the Word of God.