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The feast of the Epiphany which we celebrate today is about the revelation for the first time of Jesus Christ, the newborn king, to the Gentiles. We have different names for these visitors who followed the star to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus lay: the Magi, the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings. They are somewhat mysterious figures: exactly who they were, where they came from, and where they went is not known. We can’t even say for sure that there were three of them; we just make that assumption because they brought three gifts to Jesus.
The word magi originally described members of the priestly caste from Persia (present-day Iran) who advised their king and interpreted his dreams, similar to the role that Daniel had for King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Later the term magi was used in a broader sense to mean those who possessed mystical knowledge as priests, astrologers, or sages. The popular association of the magi with kings probably comes from passages like the one we heard in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, which talks about kings and gifts of gold and frankincense (The Gospel of Matthew commentary, Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri).
Whoever they were, they were the first Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews, to encounter the Son of God. Besides Mary and Joseph, who obviously were the first people to welcome Jesus into the world, the first people who heard the news of Jesus’ birth as Scripture tells us were of course the shepherds who were tending their flocks in a nearby field. No doubt these shepherds themselves were Jews. And it is interesting to note that it was a group of humble shepherds, not the wealthiest, most intelligent, most powerful people in Israel to whom the birth of Christ was first revealed. God chose instead to have the birth of Jesus announced first to these simple, uneducated men.
Jesus was born from the Jewish people but came to be the Savior for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike. And so, he was likewise revealed to these non-Jewish kings or astrologers or wise men who traveled from a foreign land hundreds of miles away. They first went to Herod, who had been appointed by the Romans as the earthly king of the Jews. It makes sense that they would go to him; no doubt they just assumed that the newborn king of the Jews was the son of the king in Jerusalem.
And here a shadow falls across the story of the birth of Christ. Herod is “greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod reacts with fear to this news, because he considers this a threat to his hold on power. Herod is a classic dictator, enjoying the power that he wields over people, always fearful that it will be taken away from him, and reacting with violence when threatened. We can hear the dishonesty in his voice when he tells the Magi to return to him and let him know where this newborn king is to be found, so that he too can “go and do him homage.” Our Gospel today does not recount what Herod does next, but we know that Herod is a danger to Jesus because the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The passage that immediately follows, however, recounts what Herod did to counter this threat to his hold on power: ordering a massacre of all boys age two and under in the area in and around Bethlehem. We can see then that from the very beginning of his life, Jesus was in danger. This is a foreshadowing of the Cross towards which he was heading throughout his entire life.
But Herod’s action was completely futile. First, because Jesus did not come to be a political ruler. So in this sense, Herod’s earthly reign was not threatened. Second, Herod’s dramatic and violent action of carrying out a terrible massacre did not succeed, and Jesus’ life was spared. Jesus of course came to lay down his life for us, not to have it taken away from him, and he still had an earthly mission to fulfill. This demonstrates that no human power, no matter how great, can stop God’s will from being fulfilled. All our political leaders, governments, laws, and so on, have absolutely no power over God and cannot prevent His divine will from being fulfilled. They only exercise temporary power here in this life, but ultimately our Heavenly Father will triumph and will bring everything to fulfillment according to His divine plan.
In our anxious times, I think we should console ourselves with this thought. God will triumph, no matter how bleak things look in the short term. Like the Magi who rejoiced at their discovery of the Christ Child, we too ought to rejoice that Our Savior has been born into the world and been revealed to us.
The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas comes from the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi bring to Jesus. But when most people think of giving gifts at Christmas, they think of giving and receiving gifts from one another. What about the gifts we bring to Jesus himself to honor him? What are the gifts we can give to the Lord? He does not desire material gifts; he desires the gift of our hearts. Let us strive then to offer our hearts as a gift of love to the Lord, today and everyday.