The Solemnity of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of God to all the nations and marks the end of the Christmas season (which is also known as Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas). The revelation of Christ to Israel occurred with his birth; the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles occurred with the visit of the magi from the East.
As representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees in the magi the firstfruits of the Gentile nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. God’s salvation is intended not only for the people of Israel, but for all.
In some countries, today’s feast is called Little Christmas; in others, it is the main Christmas celebration.
1st Reading – Isaiah 60:1-6
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Today’s Old Testament reading is one of Isaiah’s “Songs of the First Return,” which are a lyrical description of the new Jerusalem as Israel is gathered from different places and restored. The prophet offers hope to the Israelites that have returned from Babylonian exile — hope that, despite great hardship, they could rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem.
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
The literal translation is a twofold summons: Arise, shine, for your light has come! The use of the feminine imperative form of the two verbs suggests that the city of Jerusalem is being addressed, which is confirmed later in verse 14 (not included in today’s reading).
See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.
The entire earth is wrapped in darkness, but Jerusalem enjoys the light of divine glory. This is reminiscent of one of the plagues that befell Egypt (Exodus 10:21-23), an allusion that was likely not lost on the prophet’s audience.
Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
Throughout his writings, Isaiah repeatedly proclaims that other nations will witness the glory of the Lord through the salvation of Israel (Isaiah 40:5, 52:10, 61:11, 62:11). The idea was that God would use their suffering and exile to bring other nations to a knowledge of God.
The light that Jerusalem provides for others is really the radiance of God’s glory – it is the messenger of good news for others. That is why Jerusalem is summoned: “Rise up in splendor!”
Some see this reference to kings as a prophecy of the wise men who visited Jesus.
Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: Your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses. Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow,
God delivers Jerusalem from misfortune and re-establishes it as a thriving city. Its dispersed inhabitants return.
For the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Jerusalem’s destroyed reputation is restored and its prosperity is reconstituted.
Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
Midian and Ephah were related desert tribes, famous for caravans and trade.
All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Sheba was a nation renowned for its wealth.
The major centers of wealth and wisdom once again send their wares to Jerusalem; riches pour into the city. To Isaiah’s audience, such good fortune would have been seen as evidence of God’s favor.
2nd Reading – Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
In today’s second reading, Paul describes his ministry of preaching the gospel and the revelation that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews in Christ.
Brothers and sisters: You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit,
The Greek word that is translated here as stewardship is oikonomía, which comes from the words oíkos, meaning “house,” and nomós, meaning “law.” In other words, “law of the house.” In this context, the word indicates a deputized responsibility for some aspect of the household. In other words, God has made Paul responsible to preach the gospel – for the benefit of his hearers, not himself.
“You have heard” indicates that some of his audience may not have known Paul directly.
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
Paul states that the mystery that he is about to describe (that is, that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews) has been revealed to him by God. This is notable because in the early Church, the gospel message was usually handed down from one member to another (see 1 Corinthians 11:23). It may be that new insights into God’s plan were considered new revelations, and it might have been necessary to regard them in this way in order that they be deemed genuine.
It was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed
The fact that Gentiles are co-heirs in Christ has been secret until now (see Colossians 1:25-26).
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,
The statement that follows is divine revelation by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets, who comprise the foundation of the Church (see Ephesians 2:20-21).
In other words, the Holy Spirit has deposited a new revelation to the established Church.
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The message of the new revelation is this: the Gentiles are co-heirs, co-members, and co-partners with the Jews.
The promise of universal salvation through Christ, not of blood descendants and prosperity in a particular land, was a radical insight for a church with Jewish roots and traditions. For nearly two thousand years, the Israelites had understood themselves as being especially called and chosen to be in a relationship of covenant love with God. Now, after Jesus’ resurrection, the invitation to covenant love is understood to have been extended to all.
As shocking as this proclamation might have been, it was actually anticipated by the prophets. (See Isaiah 19:18-25, which includes: “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”) If the idea had been altogether absent from the Old Testament, Paul could not have said that the Abrahamic covenant included all who were of a like faith with Abraham, including Gentiles (see Romans 4). Paul also told Agrippa that his proclamation of light to both Jews and Gentiles did not go beyond what had been promised by Moses and the prophets (Acts 26:22-23).
It is important to note that the message of this revelation is that Gentiles are co-heirs precisely as Gentiles. They are not new initiates to the faith of Israel. This does not demean the importance of the Jewish faith, but becoming Jewish is not a prerequisite for admission into the Church.
All nations now adore their Lord.
Gospel – Matthew 2:1-12
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.
Today’s gospel reading is another popular Christmas story: the visit of the three magi, or wise men. The account is a kind of haggadah, a Jewish story fashioned from diverse biblical material intended to make a theological point.
This particular haggadah draws from 1) the fourth oracle of Balaam the Moabite (Numbers 24:17), who speaks of a star rising out of Jacob; 2) a reference to the kings of Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba in Psalm 72, who render tribute and bring gifts; and 3) the promise in our first reading that gold and frankincense will be brought on camels from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba to Jerusalem.
This doesn’t mean the story isn’t true, but rather that the truth of the story is more in the totality of the account, and not in any or all of the specific details.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod,
Four different Herods are mentioned in the New Testament. The first is Herod the Great, referred to in this passage; the second is his son, Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12) and interrogated Jesus (Luke 23:7-11); the third, Herod Agrippa I, a nephew of Herod the Great, executed the apostle James the Greater (Acts 12:1-3), imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:4-7), and died suddenly and mysteriously (Acts 12:20-23). The fourth, Herod Agrippa II, was Herod Agrippa I’s son – it was before him that Paul answered Jewish accusations when he was a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 23:23).
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
Magoi is a difficult word to translate. Because St. Matthew tells us that these visitors came from the east, many have thought that they were learned and wise men from Babylonia who had contact with ideas about the Jewish messiah (see Daniel 2:2). At the very least, they were esteemed and honored persons who were consulted by people in their countries, much as the Hebrew prophets were consulted.
Magoi has been translated as kings, but that’s not the true meaning of the term. That translation stems from the association of the magi with Psalm 72, in which the kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute, and all kings shall pay him homage.
The magi have also been called astrologers, but they aren’t truly astrologers in the modern sense of the word. In their time, it was widely believed that one could foretell one’s future from the stars, and that your destiny was sealed by the star under which you were born. These people didn’t have God’s revelation, and so came to know about God through his creation, like the stars.
Nothing else is said about the magi. Since they are not Jews, they can be considered to be the very first Gentiles to receive the call to seek Christ.
saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Astrologers believed that astral marvels frequently accompanied the birth of great kings, so it makes sense that these visitors would go straight to the Judean king in Jerusalem.
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod the Great, who appears here, was an Edomite, the son of Arab (non-Jewish) parents. He came to power with the aid of, and as a vassal to, the Romans.
Herod had a persecution complex; he saw rivals to his throne everywhere. He was notorious for his cruelty: he killed over half of his ten wives, some of his children, and many people of standing.
When a king is troubled, especially one with a reputation like Herod’s, the populace gets agitated too. A newborn king would be an obvious potential rival to the crown, which they knew Herod cruelly and jealously guarded.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
In the time of Jesus, both Herod’s monarchy and the occupying Romans recognized the Sanhedrin as the representative body of the Jewish people. It was the nation’s supreme council which ruled on day-to-day affairs, both religious and civil. Its seventy members were elected from three groups: the chief priests (leaders of the principal priestly families), the elders (leaders of the most important families), and the scribes (teachers of the Law and experts in religious and legal matters).
Here, only the chief priests and scribes are mentioned, which would be expected since the birth of the Messiah was a purely religious issue.
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.’”
They relied on the prophetic message in Micah 5:2 (Micah 5:1 in the NAB and NJB) to find the child. The text here is not a direct quotation from either the Hebrew or Greek, but is colored by 2 Samuel 5:2, the offer of kingship to David made by the elders of Israel.
Bethlehem is the source of the Davidic dynasty to whom God has promised fidelity. Micah offered the people hope that future kings would also come from the Davidic line and will be faithful to God.
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.”
We know from Matthew 2:13 that Herod’s intentions were not to do Jesus homage but to kill him.
After their audience with the king they set out.
The religious experts concluded with confidence that their Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but note that not one of them bothered to make the short journey with the wise men to see the long-awaited Christ.
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.
Modern astronomers tell us that there actually was an unusual astral phenomenon around this time, probably a comet or meteor.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.
The mention of a house indicates that Jesus was no longer in a stable. The visit probably occurred some time after the birth, possibly a year or even more. This would be consistent with Herod’s command in verse 16 (not included in this reading) that all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two should be slain, according to the timeframe the magi had provided.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
The text does not state that they honored Herod in this way, so this should not be seen as tribute for a king. This is likely the kind of veneration they reserved for a god, indicating that they recognized the true identity of this child.
Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Gifts in the Orient were customary as signs of homage. Evidently gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the most valuable exports of the magi’s native lands, which they thought any foreign king would be glad to receive.
This echoes our first reading, where foreign kings offer attention and gifts to the nation Israel. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the recipient of the same attention and gifts. Matthew is teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites, and as such, he is the light to all nations. Other nations have come to recognize their Lord.
Note that this haggadah story has developed a secondary haggadah of its own. For example, early tradition put the number of magi at twelve, but that was eventually reduced to three because of their three gifts. The account names those gifts, but does not provide the symbolism of each (gold = kingship, frankincense = divinity, myrrh = suffering). The text does not name the men (Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior), refer to them as kings or emissaries of kings, nor does it state that one of them was black. These are all haggadic additions.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
The story of the magi ends with an act of obedience and cooperation with God’s plan.
These anonymous men came out of obscurity and returned to obscurity. All we know is that they were not Israelites, and that is the whole point of the story: people of goodwill, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, are responsive to the revelation of God. They sought a king, and because of their open hearts and willingness to obey, they did not go away disappointed.
Connections and Themes
Jerusalem is the source of light. The first reading calls us to alertness and presence of mind and heart – a summons for all the nations to witness the marvelous works of God. These works shine as light in the midst of the surrounding darkness. The people of Israel have enjoyed the radiance of God’s glory and are now set as a beacon for all the nations.
Christ as a light to the nations. The astrologers in the gospel reading have been attentive to the marvels of the universe, reading signs in the heavens. They represent all who search for truth in the wonders of creation and in the wisdom of their own cultures of origin. Because the magi searched with eyes of faith, they were able to recognize the gift of God when they found him, although the poor family living in a stable must have been a shocking opposition to their perceptions of a royal heir. They returned home enlightened by their visit to God’s place of revelation. Their encounter shows that in Christ, the light of God is given to all people of goodwill, Jew and non-Jew alike.
The new relationship between Jew and Gentile. Today’s feast celebrates the manifestation of God among us, a manifestation which changes the way we see one another. The magi who come in faith to worship the Christ represent the diversity in our church and civil lives, as well as the many religions of the world. We are related no longer merely by blood affiliation or national origin, but by Christ’s spirit of holiness. As a universal community of believers, we no longer live in the darkness of sin or exclusivity but by a new dispensation of grace. All people, regardless of race or ethnicity, can be co-heirs with Christ — a truly universal message of hope.