(These commentaries are available in book form here.)
The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon”; and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Therefore, the “Epiphany” refers to the divinity of Jesus “shining upon” the earth, in other words, the manifestation of his divine nature.
The Feast of the Epiphany has an interesting history, and arose from the liturgical commemoration of various events in the childhood or early ministry of Our Lord in which his divinity was revealed. Three events in particular were identified by the early Church: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the changing of the water to wine at Cana. In various local churches, days to remember these events were set aside shortly after the Feast of the Nativity. To confuse the situation further, some local churches used the term “Epiphany” to refer to the commemoration of the Nativity itself. However, in time, the Latin rite placed the Nativity on Dec. 25 and settled on the Visit of the Magi as the event to be commemorated as the “Epiphany” twelve days later, on January 6. This gave us the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas”, i.e. the time between Christmas and Epiphany.
One will notice that in the contemporary lectionary and liturgical calendar, the association of the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana with Epiphany is still maintained. The Feast of the Baptism is generally observed on the Sunday after Epiphany, and the following Sunday always has a Gospel Reading consisting of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) or a section of John’s Gospel immediately before the Wedding (John 1:29-42).
The use of the word “epiphany” for the revelation of divinity predates Christianity. The Syrian (Seleucid) emperor Antiochus IV (reign 175-165 BC), the villainous tyrant of 1-2 Maccabees, named himself “Epiphanes,” because he considered himself the manifestation of divinity on earth. His people called him “Epimanes,” which means roughly “something is pressing on the brain,” in other words, “insane.” Antiochus eventually died in defeat; apparently mankind would need to wait for a different king to be the “Epiphany” of divinity.
The Readings for this Solemnity are stable from year to year:
1. Our First Reading is taken from Isaiah 60:1-6:
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
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.
In this passage from Isaiah, God addresses the city of Jerusalem as a woman—the “you” throughout the passage is a feminine singular pronoun. This is typical of Isaiah, who elsewhere speaks of Jerusalem as “the daughter of Zion” or even “the virgin daughter of Zion” (Isa 37:22). Zion, of course, was the ridge on which David built the royal palace, and was thus the heart of the city, which in turn was the heart of Judah, which was the heart of Israel. Thus “Zion” or “Jerusalem” often represents the entire chosen people of God.
As Christians, we understand “Jerusalem” and “Zion” to refer now to the Church, which is the “heavenly Jerusalem” (see Heb 12:22). In a particular way, the Church is embodied in Mary, the mother of the Church. Mary is “the virgin daughter of Zion” in a unique way. After all, since Zion was the royal district of Jerusalem, the “virgin daughter of Zion” referred particularly to the virgin daughters of the king, the royal princesses who were the most beautiful, accomplished, and celebrated young women in the city. Mary was this virgin daughter of the royal line, a descendant of David. As Mary saw the camel caravans of the Magi arriving at her humble home, laden with gifts fit for a king, brought from distant Gentile lands, the words of Isaiah 60:1-6 found a special fulfillment: “You shall be radiant at what you see … the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.” As Pope Benedict XVI remarks in volume 3 of Jesus of Nazareth on the infancy narratives, “Mary appears as the daughter of Zion in person. The Zion prophecies are fulfilled in her in an unexpected way” (p. 28).
To summarize, in this First Reading, (Isa 60), the prophet foresees a day when divine light shall shine all over God’s people, attracting the nations who will be grateful for this light. The presence of God within his people will draw not only the traditional people of God (Israel), but even distant nations with very different cultures, like Sheba (either southern Arabia or Ethiopia). As we will see, this prophecy has important connections with the Gospel Reading.
2. The Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 72) is one of the most important in the collection of 150 Psalms. It comes at the end of Book II of the Psalter (i.e. Psalms 42-72), one of the most optimistic of the five Books of Psalms, surpassed for joyfulness only by Book V (Psalms 107-150). Psalm 72 is labeled “of Solomon,” but was traditionally understood as a psalm written by David about Solomon rather than one authored by Solomon himself. It describes the utopian peace and prosperity that prevailed during the early part of Solomon’s reign, when he followed God’s law and enjoyed all the blessings of the Davidic covenant. Indeed, Psalm 72 is an emotional and spiritual high point of the Psalter, just as Solomon’s reign was a high point of the history of the people of Israel:
R. (cf. 11) Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son [i.e. Solomon];
He shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
Justice shall flower in his days,
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;
the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
The reign of Solomon is an important anticipation or type of the reign of Christ and the establishment of the Church. Solomon ruled over a multi-national empire (1 Kings 4:21), an empire that foreshadowed the multi-national spiritual empire that is the Catholic Church. Solomon’s wisdom was so renowned that wise men came to hear him from all nations, even from the East (1 Kings 4:29-34). Likewise, the last time that caravans arrived in Jerusalem bearing gold and frankincense from Sheba (mentioned in the First Reading) was during Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 10:10). Of course, this only happened when Solomon was at the height of his power. Jesus outdoes Solomon, because even as a toddler, the wise men of the East are already coming to him to acknowledge his greatness and show him honor. Jesus is a better, wiser Son of David than even Solomon himself.
Solomon had intellectual wisdom, but in addition to that, Jesus brings a wisdom which is greater than wisdom, the wisdom of love (1 Cor 13:2). The Scriptures always hinted that love surpasses wisdom, because the greatest of the three ancient wisdom books of Solomon was the Song of Songs. It is not coincidental that the Song of Songs is the only Old Testament book to mention all three of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Songs 1:11,13; 3:6,10; 4:6,13; 5:1,5,11,13,14). This returns us to our nuptial theme that characterizes Scripture. Not only is Jesus the bridegroom king anticipated in various Old Testament passages about the Davidic monarch (e.g. Ps 45), but he is himself the “wedding” of human and divine nature in one person. Epiphany is, in a sense, the kings of the earth bringing wedding gifts to the marriage of human and divine.
3. The Second Reading is taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. In it, St. Paul speaks of a “mystery” of God that has only now been revealed to the world, namely, that the Gentiles (non-Israelite nations) are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
This passage was chosen for St. Paul’s statement about the Gentiles as “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise….” The Magi, as Gentile scholars from some eastern land, are the first Gentiles in the New Testament to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ. They are a foretaste of the incredible ingathering of different nations to the people of God that we call the “Church.”
Today, we so take it for granted that “all people are God’s children” that it’s hard to re-create the sensation of novelty that St. Paul and other early Jewish Christians felt at the concept that the pagan nations were being invited by God into his covenant people. Certainly most Jews in antiquity did not foresee this: the Essenes at Qumran, who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought the future of the Gentiles was only destruction or servile subjugation under a world-wide Israelite empire (see, for example, the War Scroll, 1QM). My own theory is that John the Baptist was a member of the Essenes, but got expelled because of his insistence on taking the preaching of the kingdom to the Gentiles. (See chapter 3 of my book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls [Penguin Random House, 2019])
This is one subject on which the Essenes did not reason correctly from the Scriptures, because there are a wealth of direct and indirect Old Testament prophecies of the Gentiles sharing the glory of God with Israel in the end times, including Isaiah 60 read above. (See also Gen 12:1-3; 22:15-18). The connection of St. Paul’s words with Epiphany is clear: the Gentile Magi from the East, coming to worship Jesus, are a foretaste and anticipation of age of the Church, when the doors to salvation will be thrown wide open to all the nations of the earth. Many of us watch the Pope’s traditional Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas day. It is a moving sight to witness this, and hear the cheers of each language group gathered in the plaza at the feet of the successor of Peter. It is a visible sign of the fulfillment of the word of the ancient prophets of Israel, that one day the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be worshiped in all the nations of the earth. Who would have thought this possible in Isaiah’s day, when the nation of Israel was being reduced to a tiny vassal kingdom in southern Palestine, and would soon cease to exist as an independent state? Only divine revelation could give Isaiah such foresight into a future that seemed humanly impossible in his own day.
4. The Gospel Reading is the account of the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) to worship the child Jesus (Matt 2:1-12):
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
The Magi were learned men, the academics or scientists of their day. Their knowledge base would have included the fundamentals of astronomy, which was not distinct from astrology in antiquity. Different constellations were associated with various ethnic groups, and there was a certain interpretive “language” that identified astronomical phenomena with historical events. Providentially, the astronomical events around the time of Our Lord’s birth indicated a new royal line among the Jews in the interpretive schema employed by these eastern sages.
The character of Herod in our Gospel reading fits the personality of Herod as recorded by ancient historians. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod was an able ruler in his youth, who early on ingratiated himself with the leadership of the Jews by investing heavily in rebuilding the Temple on a grand scale and fostering the economy through skillful cooperation with Rome. But as he aged he became more and more a brutal tyrant, perhaps partly insane, who executed large numbers of political opponents as well as many members of his own family, including several of his wives and sons. A Machiavellian before Machiavelli, Herod’s primary goal in life was to maintain his own power, and he was constantly vigilant against possible threats to it, especially from those who claimed to fulfill the royal prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures. He was supremely paranoid, increasingly so as he got older and his health deteriorated, and his erratic behavior provoked fear, even terror, among those who had to govern the nation with him. No doubt much of the city and his court were not pleased at the arrival of the Magi with their “politically incorrect” inquiries about a newborn king. These inquiries would provoke Herod’s paranoia; and if Herod became disturbed, people would die.
The gifts that the Magi bring are rich in biblical symbolism. “Frankincense and myrrh” are only mentioned together in the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon, where they are nuptial perfumes employed by Solomon and his bride to prepare for their marriage. Here in Matthew, Jesus is being marked out as Bridegroom King from his birth.
At the same time, “gold and frankincense” are only mentioned together in the Scriptures in the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6, part of our First Reading. So, there is an obvious association of Jesus with the “light” predicted by Isaiah, which is associated with the miraculous star that brings the Magi to the Christ Child.
Speaking of this star, numerous suggestions—some quite intriguing—have been made over the years for the identification of this celestial object. However, some of the Church Fathers (e.g. Origen) already pointed out that the star in question had to be a supernatural object, since natural stars do not move or stand still, nor are they able to mark a terrestrial location as small as Bethlehem, much less an individual house. Without being dogmatic on the issue, I believe the star was a supernatural appearance to these Magi. God communicated to them using a language they understood: the language of the stars.
As we ponder the meaning of these sacred Readings for ourselves this weekend, we are struck first by the fulfillment of the prophecies of the gathering of the nations to Christ. Now at the beginning of the third millennium, one in three inhabitants of the globe identifies him- or her-self as a follower of Christ, a total of 2.2 billion, of whom about half are Catholics. Even when the last New Testament writer wrote, the population of Christians was at best in the tens of thousands, mostly Greek-speaking and concentrated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The incredible expansion of this “Jewish cult” to lands unknown would have seen absurd in those ancient days.
In modern times, the faith has exploded in areas that were once closed to the Church. Sub-saharan Africa, in which the numbers of Christians were negligible even a hundred years ago, is now around 60% Christian. Though there is always and at all times an ongoing spiritual battle, it is true that a multitude from all nations has gathered to the Light.
On another level, we see in the Magi representatives of the scholars and academics, those who give their lives to learning, to the acquisition of wisdom. The stars they studied do point to the existence of God. Many have written on the surprising fact that the laws and formulas of physics which permit stars to burn in space and planets to orbit them, all appear to be “finely tuned,” such that the standard numbers or “physical constants” on which they depend could not vary by a part of even 1 in 1037 (ten followed by 37 zeroes) for the least sensitive of them. For example, if gravity were the tiniest bit stronger, the universe would have collapsed before forming planets; and if it were the tiniest bit weaker, planets and stars would not even form. If light were the tiniest bit faster, the universe would be too hot for life; the tiniest bit slower, it would be too cool for life. Many scientists and philosophers of science have written about this phenomenon, which is generally called the “fine-tuning of the universe.” Fr. Robert Spitzer, for example, delves into it deeply in his book from Ignatius Press, New Proofs for the Existence of God. My favorite statement on the matter is from Sir Fred Hoyle, the greatest British astrophysicist of the twentieth century, and himself an atheist, who nonetheless acknowledged:
“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
So the Magi were fundamentally correct: meditation on the stars will lead the intellect to find God, if one is honest and follows the evidence where it leads.
These Magi were open to truth, even if it were found a long way away in a different culture than their own. They were not “wise guys” but wise men; that is, they demonstrate a true wisdom. In some way (we do not know how clearly), they saw in the child Jesus a gift of God to mankind, a sign of the love of God for humanity. True wisdom recognizes wisdom’s limits. There is something higher than wisdom, and that is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Love is the ultimate wisdom. These intellectuals get down on their knees and bow before something greater than themselves: the Love of God, a Love which is as humble and unthreatening as a baby in his mother’s lap. Far from detracting from their wisdom, their humility in the face of Love enhances it.
Those who give their lives in pursuit of learning need to avoid the trap of intellectual pride in order to be of any good to their fellow human beings. The Magi are scholars who bow the intellect before the reality of love and humility. We should follow their example.