An epiphany is a moment of sudden insight or understanding. In the church we recognize the Season of Epiphany when people come to understand who Jesus really is as the Messiah. So, the gospel readings during this season will focus on discovering more and more about Jesus’ identity.
Today’s gospel reading from the second chapter of Saint Matthew provides the familiar story of the visit of the magi (wise men) to the child Jesus. There is so much to understand in this story. I want to explain this gospel using the outline, “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” and “How?”
Who were the magi? They were from a caste of priests most likely in Persia. They were astrologers who interpreted the events of history by reading the stars. They also interpreted dreams. They believed as did many other people in antiquity that certain astronomical features like a bright star marked the birth or the death of a great person.
What was their mission? Guided by a star, their mission was to pay homage to this new king of the Jews. The star led them first of all to Jerusalem where they met the cruel King Herod. Their inquiry about a new king of the Jews greatly disturbed King Herod because he wanted no rival to his throne. So he gathered the chief priests and scribes to learn about the birth of this new king.
Lying to the magi, King Herod told them to be sure to come back from visiting the child king and give a report because Herod himself wanted to pay homage to him. But we know that in the back of his mind, Herod secretly planned to murder all Jewish boys two years of age and younger. He wanted no one to challenge his authority and power as king.
Where did the star lead the magi? The star rested in Bethlehem. That is where Jesus was born and that is where the holy family took up residence in a house before they had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree to murder the holy innocent Jewish children two years of age and under. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem fulfilled what the prophet, Micah, had said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” (5:2)
When did the magi visit the child Jesus? Scholars tell us that Herod’s decree to massacre innocent children came about in 4 B.C. So the magi visited Jesus just before that tragedy took place. For some scholars Jesus was born in 7 or 6 B.C. If that is the case, then Jesus was a toddler, a couple or so years old, when they visited him.
Why did the magi give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Gold represented kingship. Frankincense symbolized wisdom. Myrrh pointed to healing and life. But the gifts of the magi also fulfilled what we read in Isaiah 60:6, …”all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Psalm 72:10 has a similar message, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings off Sheba and Seba bring gifts.”
How important is this story to our Christian faith? This story teaches us at least four things.
The world is filled with evil, lies, and deception. King Herod was cruel. He ordered the deaths of innocent children. He lied to the magi about wanting to pay homage to the newly born king of the Jews.
Don’t we see evil in the persecution and murder of Christians in the Middle East today? Just recently an illegal immigrant gunned down a police officer in California. And Mexican drug lords smuggle heroin into our country to hook people on a deadly drug all to line their pockets with lots of money. Evil is near and far. Evil surrounds us.
But this story has much hope and healing. Jesus was born from the lineage of David. That qualified him to be the Messiah. He was born in Bethlehem, the same village where King David was born. And being the Messiah, Jesus would suffer suffer and die on the cross for us all. His ugly death brings us life, forgiveness, and healing for our souls.
When Jesus was crucified on the cross, a sign above his head read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (27:37) So even in this story of the visit of the magi there is a hint that one day Jesus would suffer and die as the Messiah for the sake of the world.
When first century Jews read or heard this story, they saw parallels between Moses and Jesus. At the time of Moses, Pharaoh decreed to drown all Hebrew boys. At the time of Jesus, King Herod decreed something similar. Moses was saved from death as an infant when Pharaoh’s daughter rescue him in the Nile River. Jesus was saved from death as a toddler when an angel told Joseph in dream to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree. After Moses killed an Egyptian, he fled to Midian for safety while Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for their safety.
So when first century Jews heard this story of the magi’s visit to see Jesus, they saw the parallels and they thought of Jesus as the “Second Moses” who like the first Moses revealed the will of God. God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses so the Israelites knew how to be faithful and live in peace while Jesus taught the Beatitudes which are blessings God gives when we mourn or yearn for what is right or are even persecuted for Christ’s sake.
Finally, this story teaches us that the gospel is for all people. The magi were Gentiles from the East. They were not part of the Israelite nation and yet God worked in their lives through the bright star in the sky to lead them pay homage the Savior of the World.
In the very last chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples to spread the gospel of God’s love for all through Christ unto the ends of the earth. Jesus said, “All authority is heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” (28:18-20)
The gospel is for the world. The gospel is for all people including you and me. This gospel is for people of every time and place. God’s love in Christ is offered freely and abundantly.
When the magi visited the toddler, Jesus, they knelt down and paid homage to him. They gave him gifts fit for a king. They saw God in the flesh. They saw the Savior of the World as the Child of Bethlehem born to bring healing and life to all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
(Bible verses from the New Revised Standard Version; see Working Preacher for Epiphany by Nirveen Sarras; and The Gospel of Matthew by Daniel Harrington in Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press.)