On this day we encounter the Magi coming from the East to worship the baby Jesus.
Magi were originally part of the Median or Persian priestly class, and later this term came to be used more broadly to refer to people who had some sort of mystic abilities. From a distant land in the East, the Magi in today’s Gospel reading see a great star in the sky, which in ancient times signified the birth of a great ruler. They follow the star in search of this new king in Israel, and their journey takes them to the town of Bethlehem.
Matthew tells us that they prostrate themselves before the child Jesus. This is a significant detail in the story because these Magi were important men, probably serving in royal courts back in the East. And yet these foreigners bow down to worship a baby in Israel. The Church Fathers recognized that this scene shows how the child who came to be the king of Israel was also the king of the whole world.
Another interesting detail from today’s reading is that the Magi bring the new king Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold is a fitting gift for a king, and points to Jesus as the true king. Frankincense was a perfume used as incense in worship, and so it points to Christ’s divinity. Since myrrh was an expensive spice used in burial, this gift points to Christ’s mortality and tells us that this king one day will die.
What can this mean for our lives? As we approach Jesus on this day of Epiphany— and on every day—we want to approach him in great reverence as our Lord and our King. Like the Magi we bow down before him as our king, we recognize his divinity and worship him, and we bring the gift of self-sacrifice, just as the Magi offered him myrrh.
First Reading Reflection
This text from Isaiah is one that prophetically points to the Adoration of the Magi that we celebrate on Epiphany, which means “manifestation.” Light is a
prominent theme in the Liturgy at this time of year. The light of course is the star of Bethlehem. But who is the star? Christ is not only the babe born in Bethlehem, but the light of the world. The light of the star that guides the wise men symbolizes the light that Christ casts by his coming into a dark world.
As a foretelling of the role those three wisdom seekers would play, they bear gifts that are in themselves prophetic. The gold prophesies Jesus’ Kingship and the frankincense his Divinity and High Priesthood. Isaiah doesn’t mention the myrrh, the ointment that represents the prophecy of Jesus’ death, so as to not intrude at this time of great rejoicing over the coming of the King.
Second Reading Reflection
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see an expression of the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Magi represent. God, as the author of not only Scripture but of time and history as well, can use people and events to symbolize or to prophesy to other people or events. So the way in which events fit together prophetically in the Scriptures is dramatic proof that God’s hand is at work in both the Scripture and history to affect our salvation.
The Magi from the East come to pay homage not only to the King of the Jews but also to the King of Kings. That Christ is the King of all mankind isn’t made finally clear, however, until after the birth of the infant Church and the special revelations given to St. Peter and St. Paul that direct them to extend the Church to the Gentiles. The early Church probably reflected on the Jewish Scriptures and realized that God’s promise to Israel had been a universal promise from the beginning, that his choice of Israel was that of a Father choosing his firstborn son to share the revelation of himself with his other brothers and sisters.
The Wise Men left their homes in the East in search of the Messiah, which means “anointed one” in Hebrew. The journey of the Wise Men may tell us something about the best way to find Christ. First, they listen to the prophetic word of the Old Testament, which alerts them to the coming of the
Messiah. Second, they look to the world around them (the star) for the sign that the time is at hand. Finally, they go to Jerusalem, reasoning that the king would be in his capital. There they consult with the chief priests and scribes of the Jews who interpret the prophecies and point to the place where the child is to be born. Our road to Christ may take the same route: Scripture, nature, reason, and the Church’s teachers (magisterium) all work to guide us to him. If we follow the guides God has given us, we too may be called “wise.”
Weekly Bible Study
Make a new holy habit for 2019! The Church gives us a built-in weekly bible study, and with FORMED.org, it’s easy to reflect on the Sunday Mass readings. Ponder the questions below in your journal, with your friends and family. Watch the short Opening the Word reflection video on FORMED.org on the “Community tab”. Post your reflections there too!
Imagine that you are setting out on a great journey to pay your respects to a new king. What gift would you bring?
Since a king can have any material goods he wants, what will make your gift special?
Who were the Magi, and what do their three gifts signify?
How do the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh shed light on the ways in which we offer our lives as a gift to Jesus? Which of these do you feel is the hardest gift for you to offer, and why?
Reflections reprinted here with permission from Augustine Institute.