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Feast of the Epiphany Manifestation of God’s Wisdom to the Wise Men

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There is no doubt that our present society is a generation of seekers. The fields of research have multiplied

The wise men are a model of humility in the face of the search for Truth

 

The proclamation taken from St Matthew’s Gospel (2 Vs:1-12) describes the journey of the Gentile astrologers or wise men as they are commonly known, who while on their way to see what the star foretold break journey at the court of King Herod and make known to him the reason for their undertaking this journey, who having seen the rising of the star of redemption had obediently followed it well assured of the fact that it would lead them to the place where they could see the new born King and pay him homage. Through an unusual star among the customary constellations, God sent a message to them that evoked in them a curiosity to pursue this message which made them sit up and ponder the grandeur of the birth of this King of the Jews while all Israel had been dull in paying heed to the word of God and blind in heart to such revelations and deaf to the prophetic pronouncements, wishing not to be disturbed in their pursuance of their favourite pastime of craving after worldly power and pleasures of the flesh. On entering the court of King Herod the wise men questioned Herod “Where is the Child who is born King of the Jews”? A question to which he could not provide a suitable answer and so he turns to the chief priests and scribes to learn that the Scriptures had foretold of such an event and that the Christ “would be born in Bethlehem of Judea”. 

 

As related in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph the foster father of Jesus was also warned in a dream by an angel, who told him to take Mary and their son and flee to Egypt, to escape Herod who had made plans to destroy the infant

 

This caused great consternation and even fright in Herod and in all Jerusalem as he did not envisage anyone could be mightier than himself to arise and be a challenger to the throne that was occupied by him. He tried to trick the wise men into revealing the child’s location in Bethlehem on their way home, but they were warned in a dream to avoid going back to Herod, so they returned to their countries by another route. With this new insight from scripture the wise men continued to follow the familiar sign of the star until it positioned itself in front of the place where the child was. As their gaze comes to rest upon the child with his mother Mary, they fall on their knees and give him homage. The gifts they offered were not to a mere infant whose destiny was to be an earthly king but to the one whom in their humble wisdom they perceived to be one who was God, whose Kingdom was not of this world.   


As related in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph the foster father of Jesus was also warned in a dream by an angel, who told him to take Mary and their son and flee to Egypt, to escape Herod who had made plans to destroy the infant. When Herod learned that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he became furious, ordering the slaughter of all the boys who were two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity.   

 

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in the Christmas season and through Matthew’s Gospel we become aware of the visit of the wise men or Magi who went in search of the Christ child so that they might present their gifts

 

Joseph did not return to Israel until Herod had died. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported that Herod the Great died of a painful and debilitating disease that caused breathing problems, convulsions, rotting of his body, which was consumed by worms. Herod reigned 37 years. His kingdom was divided by the Romans among his three sons. One of them, Herod Antipas, was one of the conspirators in the trial and execution of Jesus.   


Two Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled because of the wickedness of King Herod the Great. When Herod ordered the murder of all babies two years and younger in Bethlehem, it fulfilled Jeremiah31:15: “This is what the Lord says: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt because of this threat. After Herod died, they returned, fulfilling Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”


The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in the Christmas season and through Matthew’s Gospel we become aware of the visit of the wise men or Magi who went in search of the Christ child so that they might present their gifts. In the Christmas season what might the wonders of the Epiphany event be in our lives? What can we learn from the details of the journey of the wise men, the guidance they sought, the questions they asked, the gifts they brought to Christ and finally the decision they made to return to their home country by a different route?   

 

The gifts that the Magi present to the Christ child have also received the interpretation of tradition

 

The identity of the Magi begins with the fact that they come from the East. It is not clear if they are from one location in the Orient or from several. We also see from scripture that we do not know exactly how many there were. This is where tradition begins to take over from scripture and we see them depicted as being three in number, coinciding with the gifts which they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are also traditionally pictured as being black, white and brown in representation of all the peoples of the earth.   


The reference to their being wise is also assumed to mean that they were astrologers and thus familiar with searching the stars of the heavens for meaning and direction in life. This also suggests that they were themselves pagan and unbelievers in the mysteries of God. Other traditions also referred to them as the “Three Kings” who were coming to give homage to the “infant King of the Jews”. “In St.Matthew’s Magi story religious and philosophical wisdom is obviously an incentive to set off in the right direction, it is the wisdom that ultimately leads people to Christ. In another way they are the successors of Socrates and immersed in his habit of questioning above and beyond conventional religion towards the higher truth. In this sense these figures are forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age”- Infancy Narratives by Pope 
Benedict XVI.   


The word “Epiphany” and these events recorded in Matthew’s Gospel have come to mean a manifestation or a showing forth of the Christ-child to the nations. It reveals how God enlightens the hearts of all people and how he helps them to discover his revelation, to search out this Truth and to be faithful to it. The journey of the wise men begins as a search for Truth embodying the eternal Wisdom of God,through the simple observation of nature. The use of our human reason in the search for Truth continually poses questions about the origins of life, the universe, the nature of the human person and the search for God or ultimate meaning. In many ways it is the journey of humanity in all of the ages.   


There is no doubt that our present society is a generation of seekers. The fields of research have multiplied. Through technology the modes of communication have become global in reach and the access to information made easy through the internet. It is an experience of tremendous power and control which seems transformative but which can leave us feeling empty and ultimately unfulfilled. The irony is that in the shadow of this experience of searching it seems that many parts of our world desire to do this without reference to God which inevitably leaves and empty space which only God could fill for which St. Augustine’s words gave fitting expression when he declared “Our hearts are made for Thee O God and they are restless until they rest in Thee”


The wise men are a model of humility in the face of the search for Truth. They seek the guidance of scripture and enter into dialogue with the chief priests and the scribes. It is this gift of faith and its insight into Truth which was essential for the wise men on their final leg of their journey. They did not abandon the star neither did the star abandon them, nor the use of their reason for it also directed them to Bethlehem. At the end of their searching the gift that they received was the gift of faith in God and this was acknowledged and symbolized by the act of falling on their knees before Christ.   


The feast of the Epiphany offers us the opportunity to raise such questions and to see that the Church desires to enter into dialogue in the search for Truth. To show that faith and reason are not incompatible -- as John Paul II stated in Fides et Ratio -- but in searching to answer the questions of life they are necessary in our search for Truth; provided that it is done in this spirit of humility at the service of humanity. The challenge which we face today is that society is often beginning their search for Truth from secular origins without any reference to God. It is important for the Church to search out the signs of Christian faith in our society and to point to these, so that people can begin their journey as the Magi did with God as the point of reference.   


It can be much easier for us to critique society and to point out the weaknesses. of its lack of foundation on the Christian tradition rather than being a Church that is open to the questions that are posed and to offer ourselves as guide. This is very important for our young people and their search for truth. It might be important that we see in this present generation of young people not only seekers of information, or surfers on the web, but a generation of Magi who are seeking God who is ultimately the Perfect Wisdom.   


The gifts that the Magi present to the Christ child have also received the interpretation of tradition. St. Leo refers to them as symbolic gifts which bear witness to the Truth: incense for God, gold for the king, myrrh for the one who is to die. They point to the belief that the fullness of Truth is revealed in Jesus Christ. That he is the son of God, he proclaimed the fullness of God’s kingdom and that he was the Savior who was to die in order to redeem humanity from the bondage of sin.   


In essence the gifts of the Magi are symbolic of their witness of faith and belief in God in their search for the Christ child. Their gift of faith is also witnessed in their act of worship. In falling to their knees, this not only becomes a sign of faith, but an active sign of worship and the demonstration of their faith. In our present day there is growing desire to search for a relationship with God and to express a spirituality which is personal, private and devoid of a communal expression. The Magi provide for us a reminder that our worship and belief in God is not simply a private matter but one which involves the whole of humanity in their worship as people of God, wherein we acknowledge God’s dominion over creation, through the act of giving of witness and of offering of our gifts to God which opens to us the way for a manifestation of God in others. God’s manifestation in the world is intended for the world as a whole including specifically the Gentile nations, who unlike the Jews had received no prophetic announcements but they were now the first to have arrived to pay homage to the perfect Wisdom of God.   

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