April 25, 2018, 11:19 pm
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The Manifestation to the Magi

WHEN JESUS was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

***

The word Epiphany comes from Greek epiphania, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word is used of manifestation of the God of Israel (2 Mac 15:27). In the New Testament, the word refers either to the birth of Christ, to his appearance after his resurrection, or to his second coming (cf. 2 Tim 1:10).

Strictly speaking, then, Epiphany is not just about the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi. In fact, the earliest celebration of Epiphany refers to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Celebrated around AD 200, it antedated Christmas as the feast of Jesus’ first appearance. In time, Epiphany would encompass the birth of Jesus, his manifestation to the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan, and even his miracle at Cana (where Jesus reveals his glory, and his disciples begin to believe in him-Jn 2:51). In much later reforms of the liturgy these events in Jesus’ life were assigned their own specific dates. The birth of Jesus in the Roman liturgy is celebrated on December 25. Epiphany, which became the Feast of the Three Kings, is celebrated on January 6 or on Epiphany Sunday.

The biblical Magi (Greek magoi) who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are also referred to as the Three Kings. Although the account does not mention the number of the Magi, the three gifts led to the widespread assumption that Jesus had three foreign visitors. They are an important part of the tradition and celebration of Christmas.

Although commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account of Matthew that implies that the Magi were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe God’s saving action for his people. In the First Reading, a passage declares, “Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning.” The oracle symbolizes the blessing to come to Zion (Jerusalem. Psalm 72, used in the Responsorial Psalm, proclaims, “May the Kings of Tarshish and the islands of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him” (v. 10). This is a prayer for the Davidic king as a representative of God. Early readers reinterpreted Matthew’s story in light of these prophecies and thus elevated the Magi to kings.

Nor does Matthew give the names of the Magi. However, legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Church, they have been all regarded as saints and are commonly known as: Melchior (Melchor), Caspar (Gaspar), and Balthazar. A classical description presents them as follows: Melchior is an old man with white hair and a long beard who offered gold to the Lord as king. Caspar, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned honored him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. Balthazar, black-skinned and heavily bearded, by his gift of myrrh, testified to the Son of God who was to die.

Neither Matthew nor any New Testament writing records any information about the Magi after their going back to their own countries. Traditions claim that they were so moved by their encounter with Jesus that they either became Christians on their own or were quick to convert fully upon later encountering an Apostle of Jesus. The traditions also claim that they were so strong in their beliefs that they willingly embraced martyrdom.

In some countries, the Solemnity of the Epiphany is celebrated with as much color, funfare, and solemnity as Christmas. It is the time when Christmas gifts are given precisely to recall the Magi immortalized in a Christmas carol: “We three kings of Orient are: bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” 

***

– Fr. Gil A. Alinsangan, SSP
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