A reflection for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, January 2, 2022
There is an ancient legend about the visit of the three wise men in the cave. In this story, the three wise men, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, were of three different ages. Caspar was a young man, Balthasar a middle-aged man, and Melchior an elderly man. They found the cave where the Son of God was born and entered, one at a time, to do Him homage. Melchior, the old man, entered first. He found an old man like himself in the cave. They shared stories and spoke of memory and gratitude. Middle-aged Balthasar entered next. He found a man his own age there. They spoke passionately about leadership and responsibility. Young Caspar was the last to enter. He found a young prophet waiting for him. They spoke about reform and promise.
Afterward, when the three magi spoke to each other about their encounter with Christ, they were shocked at each other’s different stories. So, they got their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and then all three went into the cave together. They found a Baby there, the infant Jesus, only twelve days old.
Did Epiphany happen 2000 years ago? It happens all the time. Jesus reveals himself to all people, at all stages of their lives, whether they are Jew or Gentile.
The visit of the magi reveals three factors of the Gospel. First, it reveals the attitudes of people towards the newborn King.
The term Matthew uses, magoi (“magi” in English), refers to Persian astronomers or scholars. Though the gospel is silent about their names, the later Christian tradition mentions their names as Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Balthasar means “O Lord, protect the king.” Melchior, an Aramaic name, means “the king is my light”. Caspar, a Persian name, means “bringer of treasure”. They came from Babylon, a Parthian royal city, and went to see King Herod–a powerful king in the region–to ask for details of the newborn King.
Herod the Great was a cruel, selfish king who murdered his wife, mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law, and even three of his children on suspicion that they had plotted against him. When he heard the news of the newborn King, he was afraid, and his immediate reaction was that of hate. He planned to destroy the challenge posed by the birth of the newborn King. He looked for ways to kill Jesus, including ordering the slaughter of innocents. Herod’s attitude reveals hate and resistance to Jesus and the good news of the Messiah’s birth.
There was a second group of people, composed of priests and scribes, who were completely indifferent to Jesus. This professional class included experts in the religious and civil law of the Bible and Jewish tradition. The scribes, the Pharisees, and the Jewish priests knew that there were nearly 500 prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures concerning the promised Messiah. They were able to tell Herod the exact time and place of Jesus’ birth. They were in the habit of concluding their reading from the prophets on the Sabbath day by saying, “We shall now pray for the speedy arrival of the Messiah.” And yet, when the Messiah was born just a few miles away from their city, their reaction was one of total indifference. They did nothing with their knowledge and expertise. Theirs is an attitude of indifference and inaction.
Yet a third group of people, the shepherds and the magi who adored Jesus, offered gifts and themselves to Him. The magi offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is an appropriate gift for royalty. Frankincense and myrrh are expensive aromatic gum resins, not native to Palestine, with a variety of religious and medical uses. The shepherds and the magi actively sought Jesus, and when they found Him, they worshipped. Theirs is an attitude seeking God that leads to worshipping the newborn King.
Secondly, the story of Epiphany in today’s Gospel reveals an abundance of surprises.
Sometime in the year 7 BC, there was an 11-month conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces which is an extremely rare astronomical event. This was recorded in clay tablets. For the magi, who were astronomers, this rare event meant two things: the end of the old world order and the birth of a new Savior King chosen by God. The signs in the heavens also symbolized that the new King would come from the region of Syria-Palestine. At this historical moment, Rome was still emerging and the old Seleucid empire was coming to an end. There was a power vacuum in the region. Hence, there was a great expectation for a new king, and this is what the magi sought.
But what they ultimately found was a baby, probably 12 days old, in a manger. He did not look like a powerful king but a tiny, helpless child, totally dependent on his teenage mother. The place where they found Him looked nothing like a royal room. The baby was covered with torn clothes and His tired parents looked nothing close to royalty. Their companions were just animals. All of this would have surprised the magi.
Mary and Joseph must have also been surprised to get visitors in that remote part of the country, the humble village of Bethlehem, in the lonely cattle shed. It was a surprise to get kingly visitors from a faraway land who worshipped the vulnerable Baby. It was a surprise to receive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh–gifts of which Mary and Joseph could only have dreamed. There were many surprises.
Finally, the magi’s journey reveals new paths down which the Gospel may take us.
The gospel says that the magi went back to their country “by another way”. King Herod asked them to come back to Jerusalem to report to him what they had found. But the angel of the Lord warned the magi not to go to Jerusalem and showed them another path. Once they met Jesus, they had to change their path. They could never travel on the old path again. Their visit to Jesus put them on a different path to their destination, revealing to them a new one.
On this day of God’s Epiphany, may we actively seek God and worship Him in this new year. May God enable us to experience pleasant and abundant surprises throughout this year. And may we let God reveal new paths to us as we travel through the year.
Image: Adoration of the Magi Tapestry, public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.