The Solemnity of the Epiphany is, along with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, one of the top four days in the Church’s calendar. Obviously Easter is the highest of all. Trying to rank the other three is not easy. But it is worth noting that Epiphany seems to have been celebrated even earlier than Christmas. Traditionally, the day was celebrated on January 6, which led to the 12 days of Christmas: December 25-January 5. But in order that everybody should celebrate this very important feast, it can be shifted to the Sunday after January 1, which has been done in the United States.
The word “epiphany” means “appearance, manifestation” and at first it included Jesus’ baptism, the miracle of water and wine, and his birth, as well as the visit of the magi. Eventually, the birth of Jesus received its own separate feast, and later, the baptism and the wedding feast at Cana were separated as well. But still today, in its official Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer on this day, the Church has antiphons for the gospel canticles which state that today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John, the changing of water into wine at Cana, and the visit of the magi to Bethlehem. Still, the focus of the feast has become the magi, with three themes: glory, gentiles, and gifts.
Our first reading — Isaiah 60:1-6 — speaks of the glory of the Lord shining over Jerusalem, her light. This light will accompany her dispersed children as they return. Other nations, the gentiles, are in darkness, but the light of glory emanating from Jerusalem leads them to come with abundant precious gifts. The gold and frankincense mentioned here will also be found in the familiar gospel account of the magi.
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13 — we use the refrain, “Lord every nation on earth will adore you,” thus shifting the focus from the glory of the restored Jerusalem (which we take as a type of the Church) to the Lord himself. In that context we look to the king who will bring justice and peace, worldwide and forever, with gifts coming from the gentiles. In other words, we see Jesus, receiving the gifts of the magi, as the king we are praying for. An important element of his peaceful and just rule is care for the poor, the afflicted, and the lowly.
The gentiles are at the heart of the second reading — Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6. The main point that Paul makes is that the gentiles are now made members of God’s people along with the Jews, so that we can share in all the benefits brought by the Messiah to God’s people. He also points out that this is something we know now by God’s revelation. It wasn’t clear in earlier times. In Isaiah and the psalm, the Gentiles acknowledge God in Jerusalem and in the messiah king, but it isn’t stated that they become one with Israel. Now it is made clearer. The glory of the Lord draws them into God’s own people.
The gospel — Matthew 2:1-12 — presents one of the most familiar accounts in the Bible: the magi bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus as an act of homage to the king of the Jews. Perhaps the most important point with regard to this feast of the manifestation of the Lord, is that the magi are gentiles. Jesus is being revealed to non-Jews. We regard the magi as the first representatives of all nations. They bring gifts, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.
We might also note that even though with the star God gave them a sign which they could recognize, they still needed the guidance provided from scripture (Micah 5:1) to find Jesus. Remarkable also is the point that the priests and scribes were so nonchalant: even though they were able to say that the Messiah’s birthplace was Bethlehem, they didn’t care enough to follow up. On the other hand, Herod did care. He seems to have believed in the birth of the Messiah more than the priests and scribes did. But, as we learn in the rest of chapter 2, he regarded this king not as a savior but as a threat.
For the magi, the encounter with Jesus changed their lives, in that they didn’t go home by the way they had planned. For us, it should be the same. The encounter should change the course of our lives. They offered gifts. We give ourselves, as he gives himself to us and gives himself to the Father for us. When we walk in the light of Christ and his glory shines on us, the light of that glory should also shine through us to enlighten others who do not yet know him. Do we show Jesus to the world and lead people to him? Are we called to do it better or differently?