Sunday Sermon for January 8, 2023, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, Year A
Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
In the Gospel reading today we hear about the three Magi who came from the East to worship the newborn King of the Jews. We have all heard this story so many times that we may not have considered the extraordinary nature of what these men accomplished.
First of all, we can assume that they probably did not go on a cross country journey every time a new king was born somewhere in the world. We can even think about this ourselves. We might think it is wonderful that a baby is born in England, or wherever, who is the heir to the throne. However, we are probably not going to get on a plane and fly there in order to give homage to the new king. If you think about it, even the news services do not normally make announcements about the birth of the heir.
This leads us to wonder why these men would decide to embark on a journey that would possibly require several months for the round trip. There had to be something very special about the birth they understood to be shown by the star. We can all grasp the idea that they might have had a constellation assigned to each country and, when they noticed a new star they interpreted that to mean that a new king was born in Israel.
The question one to ask is how many people in the ancient world even knew of Israel’s existence? They did not have geography classes, nor was travel easy. It is, of course, possible that these men lived in a country that had some kind of trade agreement with Israel; they may be from a country to which the Jews had been exiled; but at the time, Israel was a very remote, very tiny country that would be generally unknown outside of her immediate neighbors.
Even if these men had some kind of relationship with Israel, that still would not explain their trip, or the purpose of their trip. They came not only to bring gifts to the Child, but they came to worship Him. The word that is translated as “homage” is actually the Greek word for “worship.” Somehow, they understood that this was not a typical heir to the throne, although the fact that they came to the palace of the king would suggest that they thought the baby was the son of the present king. I say they understood He was not the typical heir because when they presented their gifts, they worshipped Him. No one would worship a child just because he is heir to the throne. Worship is given only to God.
This is also evidenced by the fact that they made the trip themselves. If they simply wanted to offer a gift in honor of a newborn king, they could have sent emissaries. Instead, they decided that being there in person was so important that they made all the arrangements and embarked on a very difficult journey. When they arrived, it seems they spent only a brief time with the Holy Family. Even if they spent the whole day, and nothing in the Scriptures suggests this, that would still have been rather insignificant compared to the time and effort it required of them to make the trip.
Certainly, the caravans of camels and dromedaries fulfilled what was prophesied by Isaiah, but it is what precedes this part of the passage that is important to consider. We are told that the glory of the Lord would shine upon Israel, that nations would walk by the light and kings would walk by the radiance shining from Israel. Couple this with what Isaiah said and the end of the Gospel, that is, not only would the people of the nations come bearing gold and frankincense, but most importantly, that they would be “proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”
This fulfilled what the Prophet spoke, but it also fulfills the mystery of which St. Paul speaks in the second reading: the Gentiles (nations) “are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus.” What these Magi did gave witness to a mystery that had lain hidden from the beginning of the world and was revealed only in Christ. Most Gentiles would convert through the preaching of the Gospel. For the Magi, the first representatives of the nations, God brought them to the Truth by a different means.
For each of us, the morning star must rise in our hearts. We may not see anything extraordinary on the outside, but the real miracle must take place on the inside, as it did for the Magi: we must open our hearts to the Lord, we must believe in Him, and we must offer Him our gifts and worship Him.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.