The Feast of the Epiphany: What will you give to the Lord?

Another week, another attempt at a homily.   Thanks to all for the feedback on my homily for the Feast of the Holy Family.  This week I got started earlier–in fact, as soon as I posted the last one, I went to check out the readings for today.  

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus in the Incarnation to the world.  In many parts of the world, particularly in Italy, Spain and throughout Latin America, this feast is celebrated on January 6, bringing to an end the twelve days of Christmas.  In these countries it is also called the Feast of the Three Kings, and Christmas gifts are exchanged on this day rather than on December 25.   My favorite custom is that little children put out their shoes to receive a treat from the three kings, and often leave out hay and water for their camels.

The readings today all focus on the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by the birth of Jesus.  The Old Testament reading is from the Isaiah, and is a joyful prophecy of the end of the Babylonian exile and the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.  In this reading we return to the double theme we saw in the Advent readings:  Isaiah is predicting both the coming of Jesus in history, but he is also revealing what his Kingdom will be like when Jesus comes again in glory at the end of time, when, as St. Paul put it, “all things will be placed under his feet.”   The new king of Israel would not just rule the small kingdom of Israel:  he will make Israel  a light for all nations, and as today’s Psalm says, he will “rule from sea to sea, and from the River [Jordan] to the ends of the earth.”    All nations will be guided by his light.

Though the monarchy was restored at the end of the exile, Israel had a rocky political history, and by the time Jesus was born it was subject to the Roman empire, and ruled by a puppet king, Herod.  Herod was not a descendant of David; indeed, he was not even a Jew, but rather an Idumean who family converted to Judaism.  Throughout these years the prophecy of a new king, the messiah, the anointed one, persisted, a promise whose deeper meaning was obscured by an overtly political interpretation.  This new king would “save” Israel, not by restoring its covenant with God, but rather by driving out the foreign oppressors.  The universal mission of this king was either secondary or forgotten in dreams of earthly glory.

In the Gospel reading, Matthew recounts the arrival of magi, “wise men”, from the East, seeking the “newborn King of the Jews”.  He tells of the consternation this caused to both Herod and all of Jerusalem.    Some  of this alarm would have been based on immediate political concerns:  Herod was getting old and his hold on the throne, always maintained by force and violence, would be weakening.    The birth of a prophesied king would be a direct threat to his rule, one which he would respond to as violently as he had crushed previous challengers.

But beyond this, at least some of the confusion in Jerusalem must have come from the source of the news.  Why would magi come “from the East” (perhaps far off Babylon or Parthia) to pay homage to a new King of Israel?  Why would they care enough about an inconsequential kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire to undertake a long journey to find him?   Matthew never gives their motives, only telling us that they had come to do him homage.   But clearly, Matthew sees in them the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.   These wise men saw a “star” rising–the light of the Lord was shining upon far off lands.   Bearing gifts—the wealth of nations, gold and frankincense as Isaiah foretold—they came to offer praise to the new king.

Matthew also does not tell us what the Magi thought when they discovered that the new king was not in Jerusalem, the capital, but rather the poor village of Bethlehem.  When they discovered he was not born into a royal or priestly family, but to an a carpenter, that he was not born in a palace but, as Luke’s Gospel describes it, a stable.   Was Jesus, held in his mother Mary’s arms, what they were expecting to find?  We do not know what they felt, but only what they did:  the prostrated themselves and did him homage–the sign of respect paid to kings in the East–and gave him lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves were not practical ones–though when Joseph took his family and fled to Egypt they were easy to transport and could be sold to provide their livelihood.  Rather, the gifts were themselves rich in symbolism.  Gold was the sign of kingship—kings were crowned in gold.  Frankincense, on the other hand, was associated with the Lord.  In the Law, God commanded that incense be burned in the Temple as an offering.  And the prophet Malachi foretold that incense would be offered in the name of the Lord by all nations.   These gifts, mentioned by Isaiah, point directly to a divine kingship.  Myrrh was an aromatic, associated with the Temple, but it was also associated with pain and death.  It was a mild narcotic, used to dull pain.  Mark’s gospel recounts that at the crucifixion, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh.  It was used in embalming the dead:  in John’s gospel, Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes to help prepare the body of Jesus for burial.   Through this gift, the magi foreshadow the tragedy of this newborn king:  before Jesus can rule in glory, he must first suffer and die.

With the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi acknowledge–though perhaps without completely understanding whom they saw–Jesus, the son of God, fully divine but fully human, a humble king.  As the Christmas season draws to a close and the new year begins, this is a good time to ask ourselves:  what gifts will we bring to the new king, and will we, seeing him with the eyes of faith, acknowledge him for who he truly is?  He is king:  will we follow him?  He is God, and rules in heaven at the right hand of the Father:  will we serve him?  He humbled himself to share in our humanity, accepting death on the cross for our salvation.  Are we ready to accept this gift from him?  At this and every mass he continues to humble himself, offering himself to us under the signs of bread and wine.     Are we ready to prostrate ourselves and do him homage, as the magi did?  As we receive communion, are we prepared to receive our King and our God into our hearts?

And as we leave mass, are we prepared to welcome Him when he appears to us, in the words of Mother Theresa, in the distressing disguise of the poor?  Will we serve him when we see him as a homeless man?  A runaway teenager, selling drugs and his body to survive?  Will we welcome him as a Muslim refugee fleeing war and violence?  As an immigrant, leaving home and family to make a new life here in America?   Like the holy Family, they do not need literal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Rather, they need our love and our mercy.   In the Eucharist, we receive the gift of the Father’s love:  now we must welcome Jesus wherever we find him, and share the gift of mercy with him.

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  • Tatiana Durbak

    I know that this is not the main thrust of your piece, but your comment about the Eucharist jumped out at me. Just before I read your piece, I happened on something written in 2006 by Gary Wills about the Eucharist (and a few other things):
    I am sure that you are aware (much more so than I am) of the views of Gary Wills. I am curious: do you agree with him that the bread and wine is transformed because “the faithful recipients who make the body of Christ present by becoming it”?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I have not read much by Gary Wills–what little I have read I have not liked. So I admit that I went into this prejudiced. I skimmed this piece and it is redolent with impressive quotes from the Church fathers, but also loaded with snide commentary (e.g., his repeated references to “magical” language). In this short reading I really could not make sense of his argument, but it seems to be a very unCatholic understanding of the Eucharist. Certainly there has been some debate between East and West about when the actual transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ occurs, but I do not think that you can read from that an Orthodox rejection of the need for an ordained priesthood. The role of the priesthood in administering the sacraments seems central to Catholic understanding of them, but at the same time there is a role for the congregation as well. But on the finer points, I will defer to someone with more precise knowledge who has the patience to unpack what Wills is saying. Perhaps my fellow blogger Brett will have time.

      • Tatiana Durbak

        What is it about Gary Wills that you dislike?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Hard to say coherently, since I have not read him in a while. If memory serves me correctly, I found his readings of Church history and theology to be one-sided and more in support of a particular modern liberal stance than an accurate reading. His liberalism seemed to trump his Catholicism in ways that I found tooth-grating. Please don’t ask for details—as I said, I have ignored him for years.