Christmas fills people with great joy. We often hear parents and grandparents speak of the delight they experience when the young children come down on Christmas morning and see all the gifts left to them by Santa Claus. The joys the children experience are shared, albeit unintentionally, with the family. All the stresses and sometimes even tensions of the lead-up to Christmas seem to vanish when the parents share in the thrill of their children.
Gift giving, not just from Santa Clause but even among adult family and friends, is a large part of the season. The roots are often associated with the celebration of the Epiphany where the magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Yet underlying even this is the gift by God the Father of His Son, the eternal Word of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Many themes resonate with the account of the Epiphany; and to a greater or lesser extent the other readings for today’s liturgy.
The magi, representing the Gentiles (as distinguished from the shepherds for example, who represent the Jews) remind us that God calls all people of all nations to His Kingdom.
The star shining in the darkness showing the magi where to find the new-born King of the Jews reminds us of the eternal light who was born to be the Light, the Light of the World.
The town of Bethlehem reminds us that Jesus is the long-awaited heir of David and with Him the King has returned.
Herod’s role reminds us that Jesus will be rejected and that his life, the life of the innocent one, will be threatened.
Perhaps the notion of gift-giving can help us appreciate our celebration of Epiphany and lead us to a deeper understanding of the gift of Jesus.
When the magi finally arrive in Bethlehem and find Jesus and Mary, they first “prostrate themselves and give Him homage.” The act of prostration – laying fully down on the ground – is one of submission to the Divine.
In this act, the magi offer themselves to the newborn King. The act is not just symbolic though it has much symbolism. This is their first gift, before the gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the more important gift, it is the gift of themselves. In their prostration, they worship God. They give Him thanks. They praise His greatness and goodness to mankind for the gift of His Son.
The particular gifts of the magi represent something about Jesus. Gold is associated in the scriptures with divinity. It was, and still is, considered a “precious metal” because of its high value. Frankincense is a sweet dried tree sap that is used in prayer and sacrifice. When burnt it offers up a pleasant scent that fills the air as the smoke rises. Here the gift points to Jesus’ offering himself as a sacrifice to the Father for all mankind. The myrrh also comes from a tree. It is in liquid form and is used for embalming. It has a bitter taste and can also symbolize suffering. This gift points to Jesus’s passion and death. The complete gift of Himself.
The magi, in prostrating themselves and offering their gifts, give praise to God. As we consider their homage we have the opportunity to renew our self-offering of praise – with joy.
When Jesus grows to adulthood and eventually begins his public ministry, He will invite disciples to himself; these in turn are formed to invites others to follow Him. He teaches them about life and how to live lives as an offering that pleases the Father. We are the disciples today.
We offer ourselves as a gift when we strive to live this gift of life as Jesus has shown us. In doing so we humble ourselves before God like the magi who prostrate themselves. We do this in the simple decisions we make and the actions we take each day.
The Epiphany remembers the great gift of God, Jesus the Christ. In some cultures, around the world, today is the day that gifts are exchanged; for most of us this was done on Christmas day. Regardless, the celebrations are filled with joy. The celebration today is a joyful one.
All peoples of the world have received the great gift of life through the child born and manifest to the world.
The gift is ours and when we recognize this gift, like the magi, we are filled with joy.
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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