Isa. 60:1-6 • Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14 • Eph. 3:1-12 • Matt. 2:1-12
The Greek root of Epiphany refers to a disclosure, and a primary aspect of the feast day is God’s disclosure of himself to the nations. This indeed had been a major theme of the Jewish prophets: God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants was for the blessing of all the nations on the face of the earth. As God said, “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18).
Jesus, we know, is the fulfillment of this and all of God’s promises. He is the solitary descendent of Abraham to whom, as Isaiah says, “the abundance of the sea shall be brought” and “the wealth of the nations shall come” (Isa. 60:5). This aspect of the mystery of the Epiphany is thus closely related to, and an extension of, that of Christmas: that humankind has been enabled to see the One who is by nature invisible, to hear the One who by nature dwells in silence, and to touch the One who by nature is immutable.
The Epiphany of our Lord is like the spread of dawn across the horizon. After his disclosure to a very humble few — his Mother, St. Joseph, and a group of shepherds — the Messiah’s light begins slowly to spread to the nations, first coming to these “wise men from the East.” They were Gentiles, presumably, who had been watching the heavens closely, and hence by God’s grace were the first to notice the Messiah’s star at its rising (Matt. 2:2).
The story of the Wise Men is thus a proleptic disclosure of what Paul calls this mystery hidden heretofore from mankind, “that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3.6).
And to him the wealth of the nations is indeed brought, signified in the story by gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The right response to this disclosure of our blessedness and salvation, this fulfillment of God’s most superlative promises, is overwhelming joy (v. 10), homage, the opening of our treasure chests, and the giving of gifts (v. 11).
How then shall we live, who live in the times of the Gentiles (cf. Luke 21:24), when the Sun of Righteousness, to the eyes of a ubiquitously weakened faith, seems to have set? The Wise Men teach us to be ever cognizant of the heavens, the things of God, that we may see the Messiah’s star when it rises. Recollection is the word the spiritual masters of our tradition most often used for this cognizance of the heavens, and it is attained by means of personal prayer and meditation on God’s Word, and frequent recourse to the sacraments.
The Wise Men teach us courage and determination on the long journey to Jesus. Although the journey is long, and although we will almost certainly face privation and the opposition of competitor ideologies, the journey has an end. The Wise Men show us the overwhelming joy that is the mark of a longing soul coming to rest in the discovery of its rightful King. The right disposition upon each attainment of the Lord is extravagant gratuity, out of the “treasure chests” of our hearts, of what is dearest to us.
Look It Up
One of the motifs of the Old Testament, as in the Song of Songs or Psalm 45, is of the Lord as Bridegroom, giving gifts to his Beloved.
Think About It
This exchange of gifts between God and human beings is also a theme of the Eucharist itself. In what sense are we giving gifts to God in the Eucharist, and in what sense is he giving gifts to us?