By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6; Response: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
In our Isaiah reading, the prophet speaks directly to Jerusalem (“you”) – God’s chosen people. Jerusalem is redeemed by God. Light represents God’s blessing upon Jerusalem. “The glory of the Lord” is compared to the rising sun shining upon Jerusalem. The next two phrases are synonymous parallelism – “darkness covers the earth” and “thick clouds cover the peoples.” Describing the same thing, this depicts all “the peoples” of the earth as living in darkness. Other nations are contrasted with the people of Jerusalem who have God’s light. Since the other nations are in darkness, they “shall walk by your light.” This message is repeated: “kings by your shining radiance.” The people of Jerusalem are told to “raise your eyes” to observe the nations gathering and coming to Jerusalem.
The next verses describe the emotional reaction of Jerusalem seeing the nations streaming toward her in this way. The emotion is a trembling amazement – “your heart shall throb and overflow.” Remember that the prophet is speaking to a Jerusalem that has suffered greatly at the hands of foreign peoples – who have attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and slaughtered its people. This prophecy promises a reversal of that suffering – now God will bless and protect his people. This message continues: “the riches of the sea” and “the wealth of nations” will be brought to Jerusalem. This is emphasized by the imagery of “caravans of camels” and “dromedaries” (from afar) who bring “gold and frankincense.” Most importantly, the nations will “proclaim the praises of the LORD” as they gather to Jerusalem.
In our Ephesians reading, Paul emphasizes that the Gospel of Christ is a new revelation of the Spirit “not made known to people in other (previous) generations.” Next, Paul emphasizes that the Gentiles are “coheirs” and “copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus.” God is acting in a new, decisive way to redeem all humanity in Christ.
The Gospel reading from Matthew 2 recounts the visit of Magi from the east. We commemorate the Magi’s visit each year on the Epiphany, today’s feast. “Epiphany” describes God’s “showing” or “appearance” to humanity. God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity in a new and powerful way through Jesus Christ – God made man. This is the “Epiphany” that we celebrate – that we are privileged to see. The Magi likewise wish to see Jesus, whom they recognize as “the newborn king of the Jews.” Since Jesus was born in humble circumstances, the Magi’s recognition of Jesus shows their attentiveness to the heavenly sign of “his star.” The Magi “saw
(his star)… at its rising” – because the Magi were watching attentively for God’s action in our world. Seeing the star, the Magi are ready to follow. Thus the Magi – although not Jewish – receive the great gift of seeing Jesus, the Messiah. From a distant land, the Magi are led by God to the newborn savior. God reveals to the Magi a gift that He intends for all of humanity – the gift of Christ Jesus. As non-Jews, the arrival of the Magi is a sign that God is revealing Himself to every human person in Christ Jesus – not just to his own Jewish people.
The Magi arrive first in Jerusalem. They understand the star as a sign that there is a “newborn king of the Jews.” Hearing this, King Herod is “greatly troubled” – as is “all Jerusalem.” Anyone acclaimed as “newborn king of the Jews” is a threat to Herod’s rule over the Jewish people. Herod wishes to destroy this rival. The chief priests and the scribes inform Herod that the Christ is to be born in Bethlehem – according to Micah 5:2 (combined with 2 Samuel 5:2). Our gospel passage repeats this prophecy in italics.
King Herod wishes to deceive the Magi into thinking that he also wants to do homage to the newborn king of the Jews – like them. So Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem, but he instructs them to report back to him what they find. God thwarts Herod’s evil plan by warning the Magi in a dream not to obey Herod. The Magi resume following the star, which leads them to the newborn Jesus, with his mother Mary. Read Matthew 2:13-23 for the concluding verses about the Magi, Herod, and the Holy Family.
“Magi” is a Persian word for skilled observers of the movement of stars and other heavenly bodies. These celestial movements were believed to reveal (to the expert) the future or hidden knowledge. Such practices were associated with Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Matt 2:11 notes that the Magi “prostrated themselves and did [Jesus] homage.” The Magi’s religious practice (star-watching) has led them to worship Jesus – whose star “they had seen at its rising.” The description of the Magi as coming “from the east” also suggests a Persian origin.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are significant gifts for the Magi to bring Jesus. Many Christian commentators (such as Origen of Alexandria) have seen these gifts as symbolic of Jesus’ kingship (gold), his divinity (frankincense), and an anticipation of his death on the cross (myrrh). Further, gold and frankincense suggest that the Magi’s gifts are a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6 – today’s first reading: “all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense.”
The three Magi are sometimes called “three kings,” although Matthew’s text does not suggest that. This kingly association likely comes from Psalm 72:10-11 – understood as a prophetic anticipation that Jesus would receive the worship of all nations – represented by the kings of many nations. Psalm 72 describes “the king’s son” in Jerusalem receiving gifts and tributes from foreign kings (Tarshish, Arabia, Seba). Psalm 72 is our Responsorial today – likely for its traditional association with our Gospel about the Three Magi. This association led to the Three Magi being called the Three Kings. “The king’s son” in Psalm 72 refers to the anticipated Messiah descended from King David, who will rule as king – like David. Jesus fulfills this Messianic prophecy.