“[We] have come to do him homage,” the Magi tell King Herod, having journeyed from the east to greet the newborn King of the Jews.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. The celebration marks the coming of the Messiah for all peoples and nations. The Magi represent those peoples and nations – the Gentiles. Jesus, whose name means “salvation,” comes for the Jews and for all peoples so that all might know the Father’s love and mercy.
The story of the Magi is packed with significance. Traveling a great distance, they bring with them gifts and riches that represent not only their homage and praise, but also something extraordinary about the ruler whom they have come to honor.
Within the context of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, where there was “no room in the inn,” we see the child and his parents steeped in poverty, yet rich beyond measure. The presence of the Magi and their entourage, the gifts they carry and the homage they offer highlight the contrast. Jesus comes for all peoples, regardless if they are rich or poor.
The Magi also represent the fulfillment of the Isaian prophecy recalled in the first reading for today’s liturgy. There the prophet announced, “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”
This proclamation comes after the prophet calls for great rejoicing, because light has come into the world and “the glory of the Lord shines upon (Jerusalem).” Because of this, “nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”
In the second reading, taken from the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of Jesus’ mission and ministry being handed on to the apostles by the Spirit. It is a ministry of the “stewardship of God’s grace,” where Jew and Gentile both inherit the divine treasure. In fact, Paul writes that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
The gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense and myrrh – each have a symbolic value. Gold represents Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense symbolizes a priestly office. Myrrh is a perfumed oil used in preparation for burial.
Here the gifts come to represent the connection between Jesus’ kingly and priestly role and his death. The story of the Magi, the promise of salvation and its universal offer to both Jew and Gentile are all linked to his passion, death and ultimately to his resurrection. Here, at the very dawn of salvation, the birth of the Messiah is linked to his death. This is further highlighted by Herod’s reaction to the Magi, and his plot to kill the child immediately following their departure.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, the Magi find the house where Jesus is staying. Before offering their gifts, they first prostrate themselves and offer him homage. As we gather to celebrate the Epiphany, we too offer homage to the child born to save. We acknowledge that he is the light that dispels darkness, the source of joy for ourselves and for the world, and the way to our Father in heaven.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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