Walking with the Wise Men: A Meditation on the Feast of Epiphany

Note: Here in America Epiphany is (sadly) transferred to a nearby Sunday instead of January 6. Hence, this Sunday we read of this event and celebrate it liturgically. With that in mind here are my homily notes for Epiphany, which, for some of you in other parts of the world may seem a bit premature.

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, the nations, and their enthusiastic response,  the significance of the star they see and the gifts they bring,  the dramatic interaction with Herod and their ultimate rejection of him in favor Christ.

In this meditation I would like especially to follow these wise men in their journey of faith. We can observe how they journey in stages from the dim light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story serve ultimately to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey to Jesus, let’s walk the way of the wise men.

Stage 1. CALL – The text says – 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.” – Notice first  the identity of these individuals. They are called Magi, (μάγοι, (magoi)  in Greek) and they are from the East.

Exactly what “Magi”  are is debated. Perhaps they are wise men, perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as Kings though the text does not call them that. It also seems Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern Kingdom. In our imagination we often think of them as Kings since Psalm 72, read in today’s Mass, speaks of “Kings” coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s gospel does not call them kings, but “magi.”

Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going to go out to all the world. St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.

And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them. We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture but more usually it is first, someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you? God can even use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2. CONSTANCY – Upon their arrival in Jerusalem the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning King, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. It must have seemed probable that the newborn King would be related to the current King so his surprise may have confused them. But Herod seems more than surprised, he seems threatened.

Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah so the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting! But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod) are wakeful and the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi. Perhaps it occurred to them to suspend their search. After all, the actual King knew nothing of this birth and those who did seemed little interested.

Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up! Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents clergy and others who should have led them joyfully to Jesus were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

Stage 3. CONFESSION OF FAITH –  The text says, 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. – With what little information they have they set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable but it seems not. Mary (Joseph) and Jesus are found now in a house. It would seem that decent lodging has now been found. Has it been days since the birth? Perhaps even longer, but we are likely dealing with a different day than Christmas Day.

Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration. This is no mere homage or a sign of respect  to an earthly King,  this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith! But is it a real faith, or just a perfunctory observance? It’s not enough to answer an altar call, or to get baptized. Faith is never alone. It is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So lets look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4. COST There is a cost to discipleship. The magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. And they are costly gifts.

Gold is a symbol of all our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense. is the gift of worship, for in the Bible incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (eg.  psalm 141). In laying down this gift we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life. To be in his holy house each Sunday and render him the praise and worship he is due. To listen to his word and to consent to be fed the Eucharist by him. To worship him worthily by frequent confession and to praise him at all times. And they give

Myrrh – a strange gift for an infant. Myrrh is usually understood as burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, my life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will. So here are gifts that are highly symbolic.

The magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts so too are we.

Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. Here then is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get happy in Church, we have to obey. Hence, these wise men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction, they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in a possibly perfunctory worship, they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what he tells them (cf  Luke 6:46).

So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I? Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the wise men went home by another route they were singing a Gospel song:  “It’s a highway to heaven! None can walk up there but the pure in heart. I walking up the King’s Highway. If you’re not walking start while I’m talking. There’ll be a blessing you’ll be possessing, walking up the King’s Highway. “

18 Replies to “Walking with the Wise Men: A Meditation on the Feast of Epiphany”

  1. Beaufiul reflection. This story is so rich with meaning. I pray that we never lose the fervor, that we keep falling deeper and deeper in love with Christ.

    Is it known what the Magi did after they returned? Are there any written records in Persia about astrologers or astronomers coming back and spreading this news of the Messiah?

      1. The Magi — “we have come to worship Him” — were the theme of World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, which lays claim to having the relics of the Magi. Pope Benedict gave a number of excellent addresses and homilies on them, including what he said about conversion at the prayer vigil —

        “. . . The new King, to whom they now paid homage, was quite unlike what they were expecting. In this way they had to learn that God is not as we usually imagine him to be. This was where their inner journey began. It started at the very moment when they knelt down before this child and recognized him as the promised King. But they still had to assimilate these joyful gestures internally.

        “They had to change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be.

        “God does not enter into competition with earthly powers in this world. He does not marshal his divisions alongside other divisions. God did not send 12 legions of angels to assist Jesus in the Garden of Olives (cf. Mt 26: 53). He contrasts the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenceless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross and dies ever anew throughout history; yet it is this same love which constitutes the new divine intervention that opposes injustice and ushers in the Kingdom of God.

        “God is different – this is what they now come to realize. And it means that they themselves must now become different, they must learn God’s ways. . . .”

  2. Your meditation on the Magi was excellent. They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and priests are not above “lifting” good material from brother priests. May I incorporate your thoughts into my Sunday homily??? God bless you and Happy New Year!!

  3. Other legends about the 3 Magi, are that they came from Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the famous painting “Adoration of the Magi,” by Italian Artist Andrea Mantegna (c.1500), the Magi proffer 3 precious gifts; a fine Chinese procelian bowl filled with gold coins; a censor (for frankincense) made of Turkish tambac ware (an alloy of copper); and a green agate vessel, presumably filled with myrrh. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, were offered by these wise men to see which of the three gifts Jesus would accept, as Gold would have represented an earthly King, the Frankincense would have ment Jesus was a God, and the Myrrh, would have ment Jesus was a physician, Jesus of course accepted all 3 gifts, because He is all three; King of the Universe, True Man – True God, and The Divine Physician.

    The Magi in Mantegna’s painting show the magi as representing Europe, Asia, and Africa, the painting has different skin tones of color for each magi to represent the different continents. The painting correlates to Psalm 72:10-11: “May the kings of Tarshish and the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba, and Seba bring gifts…May all the nations serve him.” The magi from the different continents was to early Christians proof that the message of Jesus’s salvation was open to all men.

    In a painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, of the Magi, they are shown as three men, identical in size, dress (but with different colors), and race. Each carries a gift. Camels appear behind them as they stand in a line to approach the Blessed Mother Mary, with the child Jesus sitting upon her lap.

    The names of the Magi are not in scripture, but by the 2nd century they were identified as kings with the names of Balthassar, Melchior, and Gasper (Casper). Wherever they came from, they would surley have traveled in large caravans of camels to carry the gifts, and supplies for the journey. If they were indeed Kings, they would have have some military components such as infantry, or guards traveling with them. The 3 wise men came from far away to seek the child Jesus. And today ‘Wise Men” still seek Him.

  4. Perhaps my Lutheran parish is old-fashioned: today we parishioners were greeted with “Merry Christmas” and the liturgical date noted in our bulletins is the Second Sunday of Christmas.

  5. How appropriate that God chose wise men as the first gentiles to seek out Christ. In today’s day and age we are forever witnessing worldly people professing the wisdom of man over the wisdom of God. People need to humble themselves before the Lord in order to receive God’s favour. Our knowledge will not get us to heaven, only faith in the Son of God.

  6. I too was disappointed this morning to be celebrating the Epiphany today. And the Vatican is having this beautiful celebration on the 6th where it should be. How do we in the US change things to fit our wishes?
    Also why was there a dispensation of Sat. not being a holy day of obligation? I made sure I attended Mass.
    Great blog Msgr. Pope and wonderful gospel singers.

  7. In 1956 and 57 I was living in Dallas Texas on a street named Kings Highway during the time I related my previous guardian angel story involing the unrecognized voice of my deceased mother intervening on three specific occasions. I don’t percieve that as some special power or calling on my part, as much as a transcendental mystical coincidence. The real epiphany was 16 years later during a deep meditation recollection of what all had happened at 5 years of age and the wisdom Christ had waited for the proper time to reveal when I was 22 years old. One never knows how long you have to follow your star to find God’s treasures.

  8. In Bethlehem, on a wall of the Church of the Nativity, is a large mural showing three men in traditional Persian costume. In an invasion in 614 A.D., the Persians burnt many Christian churches. According to our pilgrimage guide in 1979, the Persian invaders recognized the costumes in the mural of the three kings (or astrologers) and let the Church of the Nativity alone.
    The tradition of the Cathedral in Cologne about having relics of the Three Kings s/b at least tracked down and translated into English. How would anyone, following the Resurrection of Jesus and spread of the Apostle’s teachings, identify relics of astrologers who had visited Judea several decades earlier? This is more difficult to believe than St Helena’s finding the True Cross.

    1. Yes, I have heard the story of the Church of the nativity escaping destruction in this way. I too wonder about the relics in Cologne but I know very little about this to comment. Perhaps others will.

  9. Thank you, Msgr Pope! Tears of joy wet my cheeks and my heart,mind and spirit cry, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Wish you were our priest here in Paarl of the Western Cape, South Africa! May God bless your golden pen.

  10. Thank-you for your inspiring epiphany message. I plan on using some of the ideas for an upcoming chapel at the high school that I teach at.

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