The Manifestation of the Son of God

Solemnity of the Epiphany. Is 60:1-6; Ps 71; Eph 3:2-3a.5-6; Mt 2:1-21

Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany. The word ‘epiphany’ means a ‘showing’or ‘manifestation’, but the word can also refer to a sudden realization or grasping of the meaning of a thing. This feast could also be described, however, as the ‘theophany’, a word that means the “showing of God’ or ‘divine disclosure’. For today we celebrate the first disclosure of the Son of God to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish people, to Magi or ‘wise men’ or from beyond the borders of ancient Israel. These men probably came from Persia, the area of the world today known as Iran. They were probably Zoroastrians, an ancient faith with some foreshadowing of Christian revelation; Zoroastrians believe, for example, in one, uncreated God. We know little about these men, except that they must have had remarkable humility. In their search for truth they were prepared to go wherever they were guided by the star. They left their country and traveled, first to Jerusalem and finally to a humble dwelling in Bethlehem. And when they saw the child Jesus, with his mother Mary, the Bible records their extraordinary action. These wise men, presumably notables of some wealth in their own country, they fell to their knees and “did him homage.” In fact, the Greek word has been poorly translated as 'homage'; it would be more accurate to say 'worship'. These wise men fell to their knees and worshipped; they worshipped because they had an 'epiphany' or 'theophany'. In the face of Christ, they recognized the face of God made man.

What, then, can these wise men teach us today? Well, there are no such things as inconsequential details in sacred scripture, and the naming of three gifts, the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh, teach us about Christ and the Christian life. Gold signifies the kingship and eternity of Christ, since gold is the unique metal that does not tarnish and decay. Frankincense is associated with worship and signifies the divinity of Christ. Myrrh, used to embalm the dead, prefigures Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and burial.

The fact that these gifts are given to Christ also tells us, however, how he is to be worshipped. The action of presenting gold urges us to lay that which is most precious before God. Now what is precious can vary greatly, but I suggest that in the present world, where time is so precious, the gift of time is perhaps the greatest thing that we can give to God. The gift of gold may therefore inspire us to do something that is quite difficult, namely to set aside time for God in our busy lives. The gift of frankincense unambiguously represents prayer. Developing the habit of prayer in our daily lives, even just a few minutes a day, is practically the most important single way in which we glorify Christ and receive the grace we need to save our souls. What about the gift of Myrrh? As well as Christ’s death, myrrh also symbolizes a kind of death of our own. Pope St Gregory says that we offer myrrh when by abstinence we mortify the vices of the flesh. This period of Christmas is a time of feasting, but throughout much of the Christian life we need to develop habits of mortification, that is, to die small deaths by offering up sacrifices of a few of our comforts and good things. It is probably uncontroversial to say that mortification is unpopular today when we are surrounded by consumer plenty, but such sacrifices are surprisingly fruitful in the Christian life. One common kind of mortification is to make a small sacrifice at every mealtime; perhaps we might even cultivate the habit of a partial or complete fast once a week.

So the wise men show us what true worship entails in a practical sense. Gold inspires us to give what is most precious to God, especially our time. Frankincense urges us to pray. Myrrh points to the need to mortify our lives, to make some sacrifices of good things for the love of Jesus Christ. The wise men gave these things when they saw the face of God made man. As we begin a new year, may we follow their example and share one day in their reward.

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 4th January 2009

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