The Feast of the Epiphany

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“And falling to their knees they did him homage.”

Which is more important – the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh or who the magi were and why were they led to worship the Jesus and what their identity and purpose means to us as Christians in today’s world. Let’s start by asking the question ‘What’s in a title?’ At its simplest it identifies an individual so that they are not confused with another person; on another level it indicates a person rank of status, particularly in the armed forces or other walks of life where structure is important for order and discipline; for others a title may say something about what a person does or is; a title can of course indicate status. So why then is it important?

Understanding someone’s title or status can influence the way we see them or how we relate to them; it may also indicate the measure of respect which it is assumed is their due or it may indicate the sort of person they are – are they wise, are they thoughtful or meditative. Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, but were they Magi or were they Wise Men or indeed were they Kings? We happily sing the carol We Three Kings, but in all probability those who were called to Bethlehem were not kings at; the most accurate description is magi. The Church largely holds that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They provided priests for Persia, and, ever kept up their dominating religious influence. The Church, indeed, in her liturgy, applies to the Magi the words: “The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him” (Psalm 71:10). But this use of the text in reference to them no more proves that they were kings than it traces their journey from Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba. As sometimes happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has in time come to be looked upon by some as an authentic interpretation thereof. If they weren’t Kings then neither were they magicians: the good meaning of magoi, though found nowhere else in the Bible, is demanded by the context of the second chapter of St. Matthew. These Magians can have been none other than members of the priestly caste already referred to.

If the title is important in our understanding who were the Magi, the next question is what’s in a name. We generally refer to the magi as Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior; from the seventh century, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St. Gaspar, on the first, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph; the Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma. Matthew tells us that they came from “the east”. East of Palestine, only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ and so they may have come from some such part of the Parthian Empire, crossing the Syrian Desert. The answer to the question then is that names are less important than understanding who these people were and why they called to make the journey to worship this new born king. S. Paul tells us that Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever; he knows that the mystery is always new and we are never deprived of its freshness. Christ God is born, made man; he brought all things into being from the beginning. The led Magi then are led to the place where the Word has taken flesh. This conveys a hidden meaning: it shows that the Word of the law and the prophets surpasses the experience of the senses and guides the gentiles (represented by the Magi) to the greatest light of knowledge. This greatest light of knowledge which is shown to the Gentiles however caused great consternation in Judea, especially for Herod.

 In St Matthew’s story we meet the powerful political figure of King Herod. This man displays all the force and fallibility of any human leader. Once in power, his main objective seems to be to stay in power. And power that could be used to help humankind can easily become corrupted into a force for destroying humankind. Herod’s wrongdoing has certainly made him so self-obsessed that he even fears the birth of a child as some kind of threat to his own throne. In Jerusalem, Herod’s advisors, the religious and political elite, gather together to discuss the political situation. These people are experts on how to manage things, so as not to rock the boat. They seem to know what they are talking about. They know where the Messiah will be born. But they don’t seem to be very interested in when, as long as it does not upset their routines of control. These people enjoy their position and their work, but they are not interested in the wider world.

 The travellers, however, are very interested in the wider world. They are seekers after wisdom. They look for the meaning of things. They do not settle down in the comfort of the here and now. Their life is a journey, and they seek answers to life’s great questions. Today’s feast invites us to join the magi, and to become wise travellers through this world. It is a great temptation, in our lives, to become like Herod, little demagogues in our own world, ruling our lives according to our own desires. We can also be tempted to become political and religious experts, like Herod’s advisors, putting the world to rights according to our own theories of who’s right and who’s wrong, and never getting beyond argument. Alternatively, we can go on the journey, like the wise men of old, and look for the child, and adore when we find him. When we accept this challenge, then, for as long as we are on this earth, we are on the journey. St Peter, who spent many a day in the Lord’s company, was never finished with learning. There is always so much to discover. “The truth I have now come to realise,” Peter said on one famous occasion, “is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

 Blessed John Henry Newman, in a sermon for the Epiphany said, “When men understand what each other mean, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.” This is the challenge of today’s feast – that we go out and embrace the world…Amen