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Epiphany of the Lord, Jan.

2, 2011
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

Thirty some odd years of preaching on the Epiphany have not dulled our
fascination with this feast. The mysterious characters called the Magi, work their
magic each year in service of their mission to pay tribute to the “one born king of
the Jews.” By doing so they bring the Gentile world into the salvation Christ offers
to the world.
Matthew had great material to work with, but like Luke, he was a master at
making critical points of theological merit regarding the birth of the Messiah. He
also made use of the Old Testament in such a way that the entire birth of the
Messiah was related to his own later claims to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.
Thus in this story of the magi visit, the prophet ( Micah 5:2) is cited as a
prophetic utterance fulfilled in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem of Judea: “And you
Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since
from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” It is the chief
priests and scribes who cite this passage in answer to Herod’s inquiry of where the
Messiah (or the Christ) was to be born.
Matthew introduces the chief priests and scribes at this early juncture in the
Gospel because it will highlight how their blindness to the real identity of Jesus
later on. They can cite the Old Testament passage relevant to the identity of
Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but they do not recognize him when he comes.
At the same time, the Gentile magi, strange visitors “from the east,” clearly
meant to signify the “nations” come with their gifts to honor the “newborn king
of the Jews.”
In contrast to Herod, the Roman appointed “king” who reigned from 37-4
BC, Jesus who is the real king of the Jews, is recognized neither by Herod, nor by
the religious leaders of Israel. Thus Matthew anticipates already at the beginning
of the gospel its own ending (Mt. 28:19): “Go therefore, teach all the nations.”
Steeped in mystery, the magi are actually strangers to us. They are generally
regarded as wise men who could interpret dreams and work magic (thus the name
magi). In later Christian tradition they came to be thought of as “kings” (“We
Three Kings of Orient Are...” la la la) under the influence of Psalm 72:10
(Sunday’s responsorial psalm) and also Isaiah 60:6 (Sunday’s first reading).
Apparently their numbers ranged from as few as two to as many as twelve.
The number settled on three because of the three gifts, they brought: gold
frankincense and myrrh. According to early traditions gold was given to Christ as
a king; incense was worthy of his divinity and myrrh anticipated his death. Their
names: Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior and Balthasar were given in late tradition,
not found in the biblical text anywhere.
The lasting enjoyment of these mysterious visitors owes as much to what we
don’t know about them historically, as what we do, which of course is next to
nothing. But the most enjoyable item of all in my opinion is the obituary notice
cited by the late Fr. Raymond Brown in his “The Birth of the Messiah," p.199, and
which offers an appropriate conclusion for us:
“Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise
men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in AD 54 to celebrate the feast of
Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass they died: St. Melchior on
January 1st; aged 116; St. Balthasar on January 6th, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on
January 11th, aged 109.” Enjoy.

Fr. Lawrence L. Hummer