• Isa 60:1-6
• Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
• Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
• Mt 2:1-12
“Worship”, observed Fr. Gerald Vann, O.P., “is not a part of the Christian life: it is the Christian life.” Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a sermon given on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, wrote that God, in his epiphany, “has lost nothing of his incomprehensibility. Only now do we begin to suspect how far divine omnipotence reaches into reality. Thus there can be no more profound worship than Christian worship, which is authentic.”
Today’s solemnity is a celebration of the epiphaneia—the revelation and manifestation—of God in the form of a man, Jesus the Christ. Throughout the centuries, beginning in the East and the later in the West, this feast focused on three different but closely related events: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Each reveals the radical, transforming truth of the Incarnation. And each, in turn, opens up further the mystery of God and calls man to worship and adore him.
The mystery of the Incarnation and the call to worship are central in today’s Gospel, which recounts the well-known story of the magi from the east seeking “the newborn king of the Jews.” The magi are among the most mysterious figures in the Gospel; we don’t even know how many journeyed to find Jesus, although the total of three has become the popular number. In the ancient Near East a magus could have been one of several things: a magician, a Persian priest, or even a man practicing occultic arts. But these men were most likely Persian astrologers, with a reputation for being skilled at studying and interpreting the movements of the stars and planets.
St. Matthew’s Gospel often refers to Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in and through the coming of Christ (Mt. 2:17, 23; 4:14; 13:14; 27:9). In writing of the magi, he pointed his readers to Isaiah 60, today’s reading from the Old Testament. There the prophet Isaiah wrote of a coming time when the glory of Jerusalem would fill and bless the entire word: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” The wealth of nations—including gifts of “gold and frankincense—would be brought by foreign kings, who would worship God in the holy city, “proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” And today’s responsorial Psalm also emphasizes this theme of worship: “May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him” (Ps. 72:10-11).
This highlights a truth often proclaimed by Jesus: that the Kingdom of God is offered to and will include peoples from all nations. And the magi represent the first of a vast number of Gentiles brought into the family of God through the Christ-child, who is the King of the Jews and the King of kings. Even in his quiet and hidden birth, Jesus began to draw all men to himself.
“In the magi,” the Catechism states, “representatives of the neighbouring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation” (par. 528). In the New Covenant the radiant glory of the Lord will shine upon all people, dispelling the darkness of sin and despair.
The actions and responses of the magi reveal how the divine light destroys the darkness and leads to worship of the true God. First, they saw the star and recognized that is was unique. Secondly, upon having this epiphany (itself a divine gift of grace), they traveled in order “to do him homage”. They had no fear of seeking the newborn king of the Jews because they were filled with joy and anticipation. Third, they into the presence of Jesus and “prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
Having worshiped him, they offered gifts. We, too, are called to worship, for worship is the Christian life.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 2, 2011, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)