The Epiphany of the Lord

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Bryan J. Kerns, O.S.A.
St. Augustine College Preparatory School
Richland, New Jersey

Isa 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2,7-8,10-11,12-13
Eph 3:2-3,5-6
Matt 2:1-12

Imagine a drama where it becomes clear to a king that there’s a rival on the scene, and that the rival is a threat to the king’s precarious rule over a restive population. And what’s more, that the rival’s appearance becomes known to the king because of a visit from unusual foreigners. We come to the midpoint of this Christmas season and, in a sense, this is the story we have just heard.

The three Magi are quaint in their own way, and perhaps we take them for granted in our creches and nativity scenes. But there’s real drama in their visit.

They arrive from the east, from a foreign land. And they alarm Herod with their questions. Herod takes them seriously, as do the chief priests and the scribes. And they manage to unsettle Jerusalem with their arrival and their claim of a star rising to indicate the newborn king of the Jews.

Herod tells them to go ahead and find the child. They follow the star, and encounter the child, prostrating themselves and doing him homage. And then come the gifts our infant Lord.

Now Herod think he’s gotten one over on them, that their visit will lead him to the child. But they have a dream and depart Bethlehem without returning.

The next part of the story, which we don’t hear in the gospel this week, intensifies the drama: the angel appears to Joseph and tells him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to evade Herod. Herod is now aware of the birth of the king of the Jews, and wants to eliminate this infant king as quickly as possible. These events are put in motion by the arrival of the Magi.

It’s an odd sequence of events, a sequence that is perhaps a bit cliched in our imagination about Christmas.

The great English novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote a novel called Helena that depicted St. Helena’s search for the true cross. Towards the end of the novel she recites a prayer to the Magi that captures something of the mystery of their search for the Christ Child.

St. Helena’s prayer makes several points worthy of reflection. She points out that, like herself, the Magi made slow progress in their journey to Christ because they took time to check the position of the star and to make calculations. Helena thus points out that while the shepherds ran to Bethlehem barefoot upon hearing the angelic message, the journey of the Magi was, by contrast, laborious. What’s more, the Three Kings thought it necessary to stop along the way and naively call upon the murderous King Herod because they wanted to do what was politically correct. Nevertheless, in spite of the danger that their presence brought to the Holy Family, they were accepted and welcomed. Their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, were silly, but were accepted because they were offered with love.

St. Helena calls the Wise Men her special patrons and patrons of all late-comers. These late-comers, she says, have a tedious journey to make to the Truth, first of all, because they are confused with knowledge and speculation. One thinks of those whose minds are preoccupied with speculation and calculation and who lose sight of simple truths and beauty – men and women who have been trained not to experience wonder.

Thinking again of the meeting between the Magi and King Herod in which the Three Kings unwittingly agreed to share with the King any information they came across about the Christ Child, St. Helena comments, “you are patrons … of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” How many men and women “stand in danger by reason of their talents” and are thus, like the Magi, slow to make their way to the Christ Child? St. Helena sees the Magi as being compromised by their talents, not aided by them. And yet, the Holy Family receives them and their irrelevant gifts with love and gratitude.

Finally, St. Helena concludes her prayer to the Magi, Saints Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior, with these words, “pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” Helena’s prayer recognizes that the Kingdom of God is intended for the simple, “the pure of heart,” but she prays that some room there may be found for the learned, the oblique and the delicate, for intellectuals, for those whose minds and behaviors make them complicated and frail.

In sum, the Magi were curious men, not simple and joyful like the shepherds who were the first to arrive at Bethlehem. They were unlikely worshippers at the manger. Nevertheless, they help us to see ourselves, complicated and unworthy as we are, as adorers of the Christ Child. By arriving late, the Magi remind us that there is still time for us to leave behind our pretensions and kneel with our own strange gifts at the feet of Our Savior.