One challenge of preaching on these great feasts is to say more or less the same thing again but in different words. On Epiphany, I often find myself using more or less the same words year after year, because (although there certainly are other things worth saying) this is really what I want to say on Epiphany. Since I am all alone and have to celebrate three Masses back-to-back today with barely a break to rest my weary knees, I am keeping my message short, so as to have sufficient voice and energy for those parts of the Mass like the Canon, which are so infinitely more valuable than my words. However, if anyone is reading this and would like to read one or more longer versions, I recommend going to my postings on other previous Epiphanies!
Ten years ago, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne with a group from our parish in New York. Cologne’s great Gothic Cathedral was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who, as we just heard [Matthew 2:1-12] came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Historically, Epiphany is the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older than Christmas itself. In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day itself. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until next Sunday, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.
That said, however, the fact is that we really know next to nothing - of the sorts of things we would so much like to know - about the magi themselves. But the Gospel does tell us what it is important for us to know about them. First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, pagans, relying on human, natural knowledge, But, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus, the Gospel tells us, is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star.
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him – not overjoyed like the Magi, but troubled,! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.
And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. It was as if they had an abundant academic knowledge of the subject, but lacked any real knowledge. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!
Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!
The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.
As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.
Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.
Epiphany Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 3, 2016.