We recently heard in Luke’s Christmas story that shepherds came to the stable. Shepherds were regarded as unclean and could not take part in Temple worship without undergoing purification. Therefore, his emphasis is on Jesus being God’s revelation to the poor and the rejected. While in Matthew, the emphasis is on the universality of Jesus’ mission. (A truth that Pope Francis has expressed once again in his recent writings: “. . . it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.... That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.’”)
Over several hundred years, Christian imagination, legend, and tradition have embellished Matthew’s story – for in his revelation he does not tells us that the Magi were wise, or men, or kings, or that there were three, or that they were from the Orient, nor does he speak of their mode of transportation, and he certainly misses the mark by not providing names of the Magi . . . it is not so much the details that are important; it is the meaning of Matthew’s message.
Among Matthew’s Jewish community, they were finding it difficult to accept that God came for all, and not just a few. They were clinging to the idea that if you want to follow Jesus, to be one of his disciples, you had to first be a Jew. And if you were male, then you had to be circumcised; then if you were to become Christian, you had to continue to fulfill all the rules of the law. This is why Matthew writes this story . . .this is the mystery, that God is now revealed to all nations, and God has come to transform all of human history, all peoples of all times.
These Magi were Gentiles- (non-Jews –not part of the Chosen People); they were from the Persian priestly class from the East, which is present day Iraq and Iran. They were star-gazers who observed the movements of the planets and stars. They were wisdom figures, interpreters of dreams, skilled in medicine, natural science and astrology. This was condemned by the Jewish religion.
In the ancient world, it was believed that the Magi could foretell the future from the stars, and they believed that a person’s destiny was determined by the star under which the person was born. Scholars do not know which star the Magi saw, but it spoke to them about the entry of a king into the world.
The Magi represent the whole Gentile world. According to medieval legends, they were named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. Each of them came from a different culture: Melchior was Asian, Balthazar was Persian, and Gaspar was Ethiopian, representing the three races known to the old world at that time.
Author John Shea writes that there is a legend that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man, Balthazar in his middle years, and Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave at Bethlehem, they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself with whom he was quickly at home. They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthazar encountered a teacher of his own years. They talked passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise.
The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a newborn child, but each had met someone of his own years. They gathered their gifts in their arms and entered together a second time. In a manger on a bed of straw was a child twelve days old.
The message is that Christ speaks to every stage of the life process – the young hear the call to identity and intimacy, the middle-aged hear the call to generatively and responsibility, and the elders seek to hear the call to integrity and wisdom. We all seek to find the Christ in each stage of our own lives and the gift that is given us is that we find ourselves as well.
The word EPIPHANY comes from the Greek, meaning a manifestation, an awakening, a showing forth, - and in Matthew’s Gospel of the Magi’s visit, what is made known can be called an “epiphany moment” – there is a sudden spiritual intuitive awareness, a flash of insight that God has come to more than the people of Israel - God is shining forth to all peoples – a display of God’s unconditional love of all people through the smile and laughter of a tender, newborn baby. The Magi had to trust and follow their limited instincts. And that is what all of us are invited to do again and again . . . for the mystery of Epiphany is that "God is perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed."
After they experience the face of God in this fragile, tender child, there is a newer and deeper awareness that all are welcomed, accepted, and loved into the embrace of this newborn King. They realize that their encounter with Jesus truly changes them and they will live life differently. (Richard Rohr: “An epiphany is not an experience that we can create from within, but one that we can only be open to and receive . . .Epiphanies leave us totally out of control, and they always demand that we change.”)
God whispers to the Magi in their dreams and warns them of the danger they will meet if they return to Herod. Having been in the presence of God, they discover that they need to let go of old routes of travel, the familiar, the comfortable, and return home – not by the same way they came, but ready to follow new paths, new stars!
They depart with a new inner knowing; they are filled with joy and awe and try to hold the meaning and mystery of this personal encounter with the one who is beyond all galaxies, the Prince of Peace!
Today’s feast tells us that for God there are no foreigners, no strangers, no aliens, and no outsiders. We all belong to our God no matter what external physical or cultural differences there may be between us; we all belong to God no matter what our religious convictions or lifestyle differences may be. Our God is inclusive, unpredictable, imaginative, compassionate, forgiving, and creative.
This feast means that we are all called to be “epiphany people.” There is no turning back; just an on-going commitment to “shine forth” with courage, compassion, vision, and hope and to live with a restless Spirit, so as to be intensely engaged with humanity each in our own unique way.
So let us embrace the graces of these readings and this celebration, because it is in this liturgy of joining with one another in the sharing of the Word, and in the breaking of the bread, that we, too, become “epiphany people.” Here we encounter our God – Holy Mystery– and in this place we are all changed, and we can reflect on the seasons of our own lives when God has shown forth to us and invited us to walk new paths under the guidance of a new star.
Finally let us pray in a poet’s words- Macrina Wiederkehr:
Creator of the Stars; God of Epiphanies
You are the Great Star; You have marked our paths with light
You have filled our sky with stars naming each star
Guiding it until it shines into our hearts
Awakening us to deeper seeing
And brighter epiphanies!