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Learning to worship from the Magi

On the Readings for Sunday, January 6, 2018, The Epiphany of the Lord

"Adoration of the Magi" (c. 1304-06) by Giotto []

• 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 it 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 entered 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, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.]

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Hi Carl,
    There were but twelve students years ago in my grade at All Saints, a Midwestern Catholic school, very German: myself among them, a CASPER (formerly spelled as Kasper) and another with the surname MELCHIOR. We only needed a Balthazar to reenact the visit of the Magi for school Christmas plays. The name Casper, Caspar, with all its European variations, appears to originate in ancient Persia. A shrine in Cologne Cathedral celebrates this
    German rendition of the Epiphany story. Unfortunately for me as a boy, ‘Casper, the Friendly Ghost’ took over, and all vestige of kingship and ancient soothsayer faded from view! I did though get to be King Casper for a magical school stage moment, and in the darkness of our winter farmyard searched for a brilliant star that might be followed as Christmas approached.

  2. In God’s Providence Greek had become the universal language of the Near East, the second language one learned if Greek wasn’t one’s native language, like English is today. Alexander the Great’s military victories had brought this about.

    The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek ca. 250 BC, and had been available to the gentiles for a couple of centuries at the time of Christ. So the story of the Epiphany — the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem bearing gifts — is plausible (and a certainty for believers in the veracity of the Word of God).

    It seems that the Magi, being wealthy, educated gentiles, had become students of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the prophecies therein, combined with their own beliefs about heavenly signs, had caused them to conclude that the foretold King of the Jews had been born. They had decided to pay their respects to him. It is that simple.

    To any skeptical readers here: How does a body of literature, written over millennia by authors separated from each other by centuries, so accurately foretell the life of one who is to come that upon study it becomes apparent that that entire body of literature was about him? As Augustine concluded (one whose mind could contain that of Richard Dawkins in its tiniest nook), the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed by the New.

    No other life was ever foretold like that. Such a body of literature must have been inspired by One who transcends time, for Whom past, present and future are all equally present, for it to have foretold future events like that. Human understanding doesn’t know for sure what is going to happen next week, much less in a thousand years.

    One can’t help but suspect that such a trancendant being also authored the Big Bang and the digital information-based, self-replicating nanotechnology of life, the functionally complexity of which is light years beyond anything modern science knows how to build from scratch.

    That such a One would reveal Himself to His creatures through a body of literature written over millennia, and then assume their nature and walk among them — Himself being the One foretold, performing works only such a One could perform — is a claim like no other. What could be more interesting to minds capable of objectivity?

  3. Jewish Babylonian exile is recorded 605 BC. Scripture was available to the various races that comprised Ahasuerus’ empire during the queenship of Esther and the ascendance of her uncle Mordecai. After the “Lion” Ahasuerus had Haman hung including Haman’s ten sons Jews were given free hand and slaughtered their foes throughout the vast empire (Esther 9, 16). Mordecai now empowered [next in rank to the king] issued a universal edict for Jews to practice Purim. Jews had adopted Babylonian which became the basis for Hebrew thus making the prophesies available to non Jews. Magi wise men who studied celestial signs seem to have had available a long history of Jewish prophesy God using their interest providentially. What I learned from your commentary “Learning to Worship” was precisely what I previously paid scant attention to. “Upon having this epiphany (itself a divine gift of grace), they traveled in order ‘to do him homage'”. Grace was indeed at work among Gentiles a soon to be universal reality that better explains Epiphany and which was my theme for Sunday’s sermon. “And Mordecai said the Lord has saved his people. Two destinies he appointed, one for his own people, one for the nations at large. And these two destinies were worked out at the hour and time and day laid down by God” (Esther 10, 3).

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