Gift giving is a part of our Christmas traditions. In the United States we exchange gifts usually on Christmas Day; in some other countries they exchange them today on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. The three magi who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus inspired the practice of giving gifts.
Sharing gifts with loved ones and friends is a gesture of kindness and generosity. It is an expression of love. Particularly heartening at this time of the year are the many programs offered in parishes where gifts are collected for and distributed to the poor. All inspired by the greatest gift we have received from God our Father, the gift of Jesus, His Son.
The Gospel account for today’s liturgy comes from the Gospel of Matthew. The familiar account of the magi is deep with meaning and significance. Central to the account is the manifestation or revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. The magi come from the East. They are astrologers. They are outsiders coming to the Promised Land. They are not part of the covenant between God and the Chosen People.
Inspired through the natural phenomenon of the star, they come to find the child Jesus. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem they prostrate themselves before the baby Jesus in adoration. They worship the newborn Son of God. The act of faith is a sign that all peoples will be given the gift of salvation through this child. The bright star that leads them to Jesus diminishes in the light brought by the infant Christ.
Before the magi arrive in Bethlehem they first stop in Jerusalem. They are looking for the “newborn king of the Jews.” Herod hears of their inquiries. We can imagine that he was first curious then perhaps infuriated (which would certainly fit his reputation for ruthlessness) at someone claiming to be a king. He was the King. Soon realizing that this might be the long-expected messiah, Herod calls the chief priests to ascertain the place for the messiah’s birth. Bethlehem, the City of King David, is the answer he receives. He dubiously asks the magi to send him word when they find the child so that he can “go and give homage.” We know his intentions as he plans the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
The rejection by Herod and the threat on the life of Jesus is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is at the foot of the cross, after Jesus dies, that the Gentile soldier expresses his faith proclaiming, “surely this was the Son of God.” The gifts that the magi carry and present to Jesus have come to represent several of these themes. All the gifts are those that would be presented to a king. The gold reminds us that Jesus, as adopted son of Joseph, is of the line of King David. Indeed, he is the heir to David’s long-vacant throne. The frankincense reminds us of Jesus’ divinity. The myrrh is an oil used in anointing the dead in preparation for burial.
The magi are led by the bright star to Jesus. The magi come to Jesus first through their appreciation of nature. Sometimes today the beauty and wonders of God’s creation are preambles to an encounter with Christ. When we recognize the order and beauty of the created world a door is open for a future encounter with Christ.
The star represents light. Jesus is the “Light of the World.” Jesus is the “light that shatters darkness.” When we come to Jesus and encounter him with an open heart, the darkness of ignorance is shattered. When we come to Jesus and place our faith in him, the darkness of death is replaced by the brilliance of life. When we come to Jesus in love, the darkness of sin is replaced by the radiance of mercy.
Today as we gather to celebrate the Epiphany, like the magi we too bring gifts to the Lord. The gifts we bring are not gold, frankincense and myrrh but the gift of ourselves. We bring our talents and abilities, our personalities and our dispositions, our good works and our love. We bring them to the altar and present them to the Father in thanksgiving for all He given us in Christ Jesus.