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.
Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas, January 6th. However, in the dioceses of the United States, this feast has been moved to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8.
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 after the Babylonian exile. The prophet offers hope — hope that, despite great hardship, the Israelites that have returned can 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!
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 the ninth plague 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.
Some commentators see this reference to kings as a prophecy of the magi who visited Jesus in today’s gospel reading.
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!”
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, returns its dispersed inhabitants, and re-establishes it as a thriving city.
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.
Once again major centers of wealth and wisdom send their wares to Jerusalem; riches pour into the city. To Isaiah’s audience, such good fortune would have been seen as tremendous 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, from 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.
Paul’s phrase “you have heard” indicates that some of his audience may not have known him 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 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 a new divine revelation by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets, who comprise the foundation of the Church (see Ephesians 2:20-21).
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.
In the Old Testament, God promised Abraham that through his offspring all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; Sirach 44:21), but how this would happen was not revealed. The Jews always thought that it would come about through their exaltation over other nations.
Here, Paul proclaims that God has chosen another way: that of bringing the Gentiles into the Church, the body of Christ, on equal terms with the Jews. This is the “mystery” Paul refers to, and the fact that Christ revealed himself to Paul and chose him to be the preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles is something which Paul sees as part of the systematic implementation — the oikonomía — of God’s plan.
This was a radical insight for a church with two thousand years of Jewish roots and traditions. However, as shocking as this proclamation might have been, it was 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’s 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:
- Herod the Great, referred to in this passage;
- Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had John the Baptist beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12) and interrogated Jesus during his passion (Luke 23:7-11);
- Herod Agrippa I, a grandson 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);
- Herod Agrippa II, son of Herod Agrippa I, heard Jewish accusations of Paul while Paul was a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 23:23).
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
Magoi is a difficult word to translate. It has been rendered 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 were learned men, probably from Persia, who devoted themselves to the study of the stars. They have been called astrologers, but they weren’t truly astrologers in the modern sense of the word. They didn’t have God’s revelation, and so came to know about God through studying the many facets of 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.”
The Jews had made known throughout the East their hope of a Messiah. The magi knew about this expected Messiah, king of the Jews. According to ideas widely accepted at the time, a person as significant as this Messiah-king would have a star connected with his birth. Seeking a newborn Jewish king, the magi would naturally go straight to the Judean king in Jerusalem.
John Chrysostom identified the significance of the meeting between the magi and Herod’s court: “The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way, the birth of Jesus would be made known to all.” [St. John Chrysostom, Homily on St. Matthew, 7]
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod the Great was an Edomite, the son of Arab (i.e., non-Jewish) parents. He came to power with the aid and as a vassal of 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. This information derives largely from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote towards the end of the first century; it confirms the cruel picture drawn in the Gospels.
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.’”
In Jewish circles at the time of Jesus, the hope was widespread that the Messiah would soon arrive. The general idea was that he would be a king, like a new and even greater David.
The priests and scribes relied on the prophetic message in Micah 5:2 (Micah 5:1 in the NAB and NJB) to find the child. The quote cited here is not directly 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 take note: 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 a 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 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 a 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 that changes the way we see one another. The magi who come in faith to worship the Messiah 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.