(or the Sunday between 2 January and 8 January)
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The readings from the Infancy Gospels are closely linked to narratives in the Old Testament. The writers (Matthew and Luke) use citations and re-written narratives to explore the identity of Jesus. It all may seem a strange literary device to us, but the original hearers and readers, the Jewish Christians, would have had no trouble picking up the biblical resonances that gave these stories such significance for their faith.
(i) Balaam: Behind the story of the magi - wise men - lies the story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. In the Book of Numbers, an evil king of Moab tries to use the seer/magus Balaam to bring disaster on the people of Israel "because they were so numerous." Against God's will, Balaam obeys the king, but at the point of cursing Israel, Balaam utters an oracle of future hope. This oracle was read in later times as a Messianic promise. "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near - a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel." (Num 24:17) The author takes from this story the narrative of an evil King (Balak / Herod), trying to bring disaster (on Israel / on the Messiah), by means of Balaam (a seer / the Magi). The star in the story comes from Numbers 24 and alerts the reader this time to Messianic fulfilment.
(ii) The gifts offered by the Magi call to mind a universalist text in Isaiah: "A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord." (Is 60:6) It was concluded from this text as well that the mode of transport of the magi was camels, although Matt supplies no such detail.
(iii) The Magi as a symbol of the Gentiles comes from an echo in Psalm 72: "May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service." (Psa 72:10-11) From this reference, quite early on it was deduces that the magi were kings, as in all representations since. Eventually they were given names - Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar.
(iv) Bethlehem, the city of David, is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, unlike Nazareth. The proof text provided was, at the time, read as a messianic prophecy. "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." (Mic 5:2)
During Christmas time we give presents to different people and others give presents to us. What's it all about? It all goes back to the story of the wise men going to Bethlehem, falling down on their knees, and offering the best gifts they could afford to the Baby King. But Christmas is not just about giving presents. It's more about being present, i.e. sharing ourselves with warmth, affection and sincerity. The quality of our personal presence is everything.In practice, gift-giving may sometimes be aimed more at keeping on side and keeping the peace than being really present. In fact, gift-giving may at times be part of the commercialisation of Christmas instead of an expression of unconditional love.
The wise men were completely single-minded and sincere in their gift-giving. Their gifts were expressions of their respect, reverence, gratitude and love for the child. Their gifts were given with no strings attached, no conditions, and no mixed motives. The flaws in our own gift-giving may make us feel that the whole business of exchanging Christmas presents should be abolished, and that the commercialisation of Christmas should be restrained and restricted, if not eliminated altogether.
If we think such thoughts, it may help to remember that the consumerism of Christmas is somewhat necessary. Were it a completely spiritual celebration, hundreds of small businesses would go to the wall. Thousands of factory workers making bon-bons, trees, chocolates, decorations, cards and toys, would find themselves unemployed. It may also be helpful to remember that if people did not spend money on gifts to family and friends at Christmas, their consciences would not be roused to make donations to the poor and needy at this special time of giving and sharing. (Many charities, in fact, experience a big boost at Christmas time).
Despite the limits and flaws in our gift-giving, it's important to both keep the practice alive and to purify it of its worst excesses. It's particularly important to the lives of children. The good news is that while they are attracted to receiving e.g., a gift of an I-pad or of shiny new roller-blades, they are also attracted to the Crib and to the story of the baby lying there clothed in rags. Their hearts are touched by the plight of his parents who are so poor that they can offer him nothing but their protection and affection.
In fact, children very easily get the message that this is a story of love. They appreciate the humanity of the Holy Family, their struggles and their sacrifices, to bring to the human race the Light of the Nations. The story of the visit to the Crib by the Wise Men is a story of giving and receiving. It speaks of how gifts express love between persons, and of how gifts given with love bind people together. But it is not simply about the giving of things (in this case gold, frankincense, and myrrh) but the giving of persons, the sharing of selves.
In celebrating Epiphany we are celebrating the greatest proof of goodness there has ever been, of God's deeply personal love for us. For it was out of love, that the Father gave us the Son, and gave him to be our Light, our Saviour, our King and our Joy. His present to us is nothing less than the divine presence in our lives. The poet John Betjeman has aptly called this:
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago.
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.
Few scholars dispute that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But dating his birth is quite another matter. Historians have never been able to agree on the year Jesus was born and there is even less certainty about the day or the month. Oddly enough, a clue may lie in today's story about the star that led the way to him. The part of the Infancy Narrative one might be most tempted to discard as fairy-tale can also be highly meaningful. Whatever else has changed since Christ was born, the sky at night remains the same. Star-gazers today can follow the same star the Wise Men followed.
Western tradition has chosen three as the number of the Wise Men and even found exotic names for them, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. We may imagine that they travelled from Persia or South Arabia, though Matthew simply indicates that they came from the East. The gospel leaves no doubt that they were men of conviction, with enquiring minds and adventuresome spirit; in a word, intellectuals.
The point should not be overlooked. The church's leaders have often not shown such welcome to intellectuals as its Founder did. No church or religion can flourish if it does not cherish specially its poets, writers and thinkers. The true church in the world is an island of saints and scholars. Stars reveal their secrets to dreamers. The searching of the Wise Men is a fine illustration of the Latin adage for theology, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). The message for us is clear: if there is to be any epiphany in our lives we will need our heads as well as our hearts. We can ill-afford to ignore the insights of questing intellectuals.