The Word in the Eucharist: Epiphany
Today we celebrate the appearance of the Child Jesus on the human scene. Every year on this day, we read the fascinating story of the star guiding the Wise Men to Bethlehem. [Bible experts indicate that this particular section of the New Testament belongs to a Hebrew style of literature known as midrash, which is highly symbolic; its literal sense then is to be taken with the proberbial grain of salt.]
Epiphany is the manifestation of the Son of God made man. Christmas is the manifestation of the newborn Savior to the people of Palestine; Epiphany is the manifestation of the Savior to all mankind. The call of the Wise Men or Magi represents the call of the people to the Child Jesus, King and Savior. The call is to all men, with no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman, black and white, etc.
Epiphany is an older feast than Christmas. Many Catholic countries still celebrate it wih more solemnity than Christmas itself. And it is liturgically more significant. The Bible does not use the word at all, probably to avoid any association with pagan mystery religions, in which an epiphany occurred when one of the gods appeared and manifested himself to someone. The Hellenistic king, Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Mac 1:10), took up the name because he considered himself to be god manifested. By the third century the danger of any pagan association had disappeared. Now it could be applied to Jesus Christ, who is, indeed, God manifested in a way that no pagan king could ever have dreamed.
Christian piety fell in love with the Wise Men’s story. It must be noted that the evangelist says nothing about their home country, their status, their religion, their number, and even their names. Those details were later added by folklore and tradition. Upon reading Psalm 72, (The kings of Arabia shall bring tribute... and shall pay him homage), devout Christians concluded the Magi were kings. They inferred they were three because there were three gifts offered. By the 9th century, they had named them, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. And by the Middle Ages, one of the Magi appears as a black man.
Matthew, the Evangelist, wants to tell us that all we need to know is that, from the time of his coming into the world, Jesus was manifested to people who came from distant lands. God made the good news of this birth known to them by a suitable sign, which guided their journey. What was this sign for the Magi? We can not say for certain. The Magi represent a Gentile people and so prefigure the acceptance of Jesus by whole world. Today’s Gospel stresses the universality, the catholicity, of salvation offered by God to mankind. Whatever might be the origin, color, or social class of a man, he is called to share the joy of Christmas. St. Matthew intends to show that Jesus did not come only for Abraham’s descendants, but is the Man for all nations. The Wise Men traveled as proxies for the Gentile people, and their gifts were donated remotely in our names.
The Magi, who have come from the East to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews, offered him presents. The Christian tradition very quickly attributed additional meaning to the Magi’s presents: gold (kingship), incense (Divinity) and myrrh (mortality). The way the evangelist presents these events is colored by the faith that enlightened him when he wrote his work; it expresses and clarifies the faith of the Church at the time. But faith is not simply a matter of acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord and Son of God; It involves obedience to him, now. The Gospel is not only kerygma, proclamation of faith; it is also catechesis, instruction on how to unify one’s faith and life. St. Matthew especially stresses this message at the end of his Epiphany story. God’s order to the Magi to return to their country by another route, actually suggests that there must be a change in our ways after we encounter the Lord in faith.