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Readings: IS 60:1-6; PS 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; EPH 3:2-3A, 5-6; MT 2:1-12

January 4, 2014


The title of today's feast "epiphany" means "manifestation" in Greek and we have to admit that the Gospel of Matthew illustrates this manifestation with a flourish. Today's feast is a filmmaker's delight because it is full of wonderful images: a star magically appearing in the sky, exotically clothed travellers from the East riding on camels (the camels are presumed since the text does not specify their mode of transport), luxurious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and a new-born child.  The story has drama and suspense: the bloody and cruel king intent on doing the baby harm. The story has paradox: the coming of wealthy and aristocratic foreigners to a poor couple forced to take lodging in a stable and there to give birth to their first born. All of these stunning elements of the story have been rightly celebrated for almost two millennia in Christian art and in innumerable Epiphany pageants.

In a way, though, all of these great images can allow us to remain with a superficial appreciation of the event and distract us from the more profound meaning of the epiphany as it is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew.  We should start by asking, "Who are these three magi, these pagans, these non-Jews who go through all the trouble of journeying West to find a new-born king of the Jews?" The term Magi is difficult to translate. To call them "wise men" is a bit too generic and to refer to them as Kings is inaccurate. In many ways, by the use of the term "Magi" the Gospel meant to represent all the wisdom and knowledge of the East.  

At the time of Jesus, Magi were advisors to the Persian Kings on political and religious matters. They represent the learning/science of the day since they were skilled in astronomical observations (and therefore astrology as well). Though the Gospel itself does not emphasize that the Magi are Gentiles (non-Jews) this feast has long been interpreted in the Western Church as the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the nations. The coming of the lordly Magi is juxtaposed with the humble and poor shepherds from Luke's gospel, implying the universality of God's revelation to both Jews and Gentiles in Jesus Christ.

The images are meant to be paradoxical. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that these learned, well placed, and wealthy Magi are literally moved by the birth of a baby. While they have been trained in all manners of divination, it is this birth that represents God's most eloquent revelation to all humanity.

Going beyond all of the wonderful imagery for this feast, it is another paradox that I wrestle with this Epiphany. As we celebrate the Magi, representing wisdom and political connection, being motivated by the birth of a child, we daily read about other children of the Middle East - those in Syria - who are suffering and dying because of lack of both wisdom and political will. UNICEF has estimated that five million children are affected by the on-going conflict that shows no sign of abating any time soon. We also read that in our own country, because of recent budgetary cuts, twenty percent of U.S. children go to bed hungry every night.

This manifestation of God in a little child today calls us to an ever greater solidarity with all of those children in Syria, in the U.S. and elsewhere - for they too, represent the manifestation of God if we have eyes to see it.

Fr. Mark R. Francis, CSV


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