Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
This Sunday we celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, the event that marks the revelation of Christ to the nations represented by the Three Wise Men or Three Kings or Magi that come from the Orient.
Interestingly, the Gospel account does not mention the number of Kings, but tradition has it that they were three, perhaps because of the fact that St. Matthew mentions in the Gospel that these Wise Men brought three gifts to present to the newborn child, namely, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those who study the Gospel according to St. Matthew and the narratives related to the infancy of Christ, point out that these gifts are very rich in symbolism.
In the final book of his trilogy on Jesus, The infancy of Jesus, Pope Benedict notes that the Magi fall prostrate upon the encounter with the newborn child, an homage that would be fitting for a God-king, thus the significance of the gifts which do not seem to be very practical. According to the Pope emeritus, these gifts are not what you would expect for a family in need at the time of childbirth, they rather reinforce the sense of adoration demonstrated by their falling prostrate before the child Jesus. They are an acknowledgment of the dignity of the One to whom they are offered and they relate to different aspects of the mystery of Christ.
There is a carol dating back to the XIX century, We Three Kings, that our talented parish choir sings beautifully every year on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord at 9:30 and 11:00 AM Mass, that has a poetic reference to the symbolic significance of these gifts brought by the Magi. Incidentally, our talented choir members also sung that carol last December at the outstanding first ever Christmas concert held at the New World Symphony Hall, an event organized to help us contemplate the mystery of Christmas and assist the underprivileged among us by raising funds for the St. Vincent de Paul Society that I hope will become a tradition at our parish.
Most of us are familiar with the lyrics of that beautiful carol, especially the refrain: “O star of wonder…”, but I would like to concentrate on the three verses where the gifts are described in all their symbolic meaning with poetic beauty. In the arrangement sung by our choir, each of the verses is sung by a different soloist, so as to be attuned with the tradition that the number of Wise Men is three.
The second verse of the carol goes like this: “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.”
St. Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience; therefore, he includes many details that would not be relevant to the casual reader, but are very important for his audience. Additionally, he often includes quotes of the Old Testament to show how they are fulfilled in Christ.
Gold is mentioned in chapter 60 of the book of the prophet Isaiah among the gifts that are brought by the Gentiles to the new Jerusalem upon their coming together around the God of Israel. Interestingly, incense is the other object included in that reference; however, it is the precious metal as the carol so beautifully declares that speaks of the sovereignty of the God of Israel over the entire universe and the recognition of that fact by all the nations represented by these Magi who come from the east.
As the angel Gabriel proclaims at the time of the Annunciation to the Blessed Mother, the One who is born of her, Jesus, is the heir of the throne of David his father and of his Kingdom there will be no end. He is the Messiah, the one whom the prophets had announced, the Virgin Mother conceived and John the Baptist pointed out, who has come to redeem the entire human race.
Incense, on the other hand, emphasizes another aspect of the person of Christ, His divinity.
The carol describes its meaning in the following way: “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.”
Indeed, this King is no ordinary man, he is also true God. Therefore, He is to be worshipped, adored as is fitting to His divinity.
What is most extraordinary about all of this is the fact that this God-King, reveals himself to the nations not by an ostentatious display of power, but as a vulnerable child lying in a manger. The incomparable love of God for our human nature is made manifest in His embrace of our fragility in order to strengthen us with his power.
The third gift presented to the infant, speaks precisely of this and the Paschal mystery, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord, the momentous events that bring God’s loving plan for creation to its consummation and fulfillment.
The carol describes its significance in the fourth verse: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb.”
While gold and incense are proper to His kingship and divinity, His being God; myrrh is truly what is ours, proper to our vulnerable and fragile human nature oppressed by the yoke of sin death. Christ, true God and true man, has assumed our human nature to set us free.
The gifts presented by the Magi not only acknowledge him as the Messiah and Lord of all but also announce his Passion. He is born to die, yet death will be swallowed up in his victory, because this child is fully human but also fully God.
The carol with poetic beauty and the prayerful rendition by our choir, I might add, leads us into the contemplation of the person of Jesus, His royalty, His sovereignty over the entire universe, His claim over our existence, the rightful demands He makes on us and how fitting it is to adore Him always because He is God. It also speaks of the depth and radicality of His love for us made manifest in His assuming our human nature and most admirably on the Cross.
Before the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the love of God, His rising from the dead, the most fitting attitude is the one of these Wise Men, to prostrate ourselves in adoration and offer our entire lives to Him as a gift!
Fr. Roberto M. Cid