The Epiphany of the Lord

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

Today, when we recall the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem and celebrate the light of salvation shining from Israel to the whole world, many questions arise:

• How many magi were there? (Three is the usual answer, based on the number of gifts, but the Gospel does not explicitly tell us.)

• Where did they come from? How long did it take them to get to Bethlehem, and what route did they take?

• What were their names?

• Why doesn’t anyone mention all this when Jesus gets older? If King Herod and all of

Jerusalem were troubled by the appearance of the magi, you would think someone would mention it to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin before they start interrogating Jesus. Why didn’t anyone tell Pontius Pilate that the prisoner before him was born, literally, under a special star?

As a child, all these queries were dwarfed by one, crucial question: What happened to the gold? We know that Mary and Joseph didn’t set up a college fund for Jesus, so what did they do with the cash? I guess that as a child, I was concerned that the baby Jesus was getting ripped off by his parents – something I knew about first-hand. When I was given cash and savings bonds for my first communion and confirmation, they immediately vanished into my mother’s “safekeeping”; and when I asked about them later, I was told they were used for ridiculous things like new clothes at Easter. So I was understandably worried that Mary and Joseph promised the magi they would hold onto the gifts until Jesus was old enough to use them, but then somehow, when the time came, the frankincense and myrrh were still there but the gold had been mysteriously misplaced. I suspected they gave Jesus some story about needing to spend it all during the so- called “flight into Egypt.”

Although I sometimes still wonder what happened to the gifts, the question I want to focus on today is much more simple: Were the magi disappointed? Today, if you go to see a one- star movie or stay at a one-star hotel, you know in advance that it won’t be a memorable experience, at least not in a good way. But those stars are human judgments; a star in the sky is God’s review. The wise men didn’t need to see four or five stars before they left home. They saw one star moving in an unexpected way, and were inspired to follow it to the newborn king of the Jews. So they probably expected something better than what they found. They may have expected the star head to head towards Herod’s palace or perhaps the Temple. But the star moves to Bethlehem, a small village of no importance. It stops over a carpenter’s young wife and her child. No guards, no doctors, no nursemaids, no cooks, no musicians. No servants rushed to wash their feet.

Were the magi disappointed at this one-star Messiah? Did they expect a grand reception, a place of honor at a banquet table? Did they hope to have their names written down by a royal scribe, to be remembered by future generations as the first foreign visitors to the newborn king? Did they expect comfortable rooms to rest in after their long journey? Did they even hope that the exchange of gifts might be two-way?

In other words, were the magi the first victims of “Christmas anticlimax”? The first to believe that a box with brilliant wrapping contained an equally brilliant gift? The first to build up their hopes for a grand celebration and instead find something pleasant but ordinary? Did they think that the hard work of studying the night skies, the difficult trip along dangerous roads, and the expensive gifts would all have to end in a wonderful pageant and a sumptuous meal amidst the wealthy and powerful of Judea?

Yet, “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” If they were taken back by the simple surrounding, it did not keep them from falling forward in praise. They did not hold back their gifts. The same wisdom by which they interpreted the star now opened their eyes to see glory in the midst of humility.

Thus, although we don’t know their names or exact number, although we don’t know their ages or where they came from or what language they spoke, although we don’t know how long their trip took or what happened to them after they left Bethlehem, every generation of Christians has held them in admiration, and looked to them as models of what we seek to do in our own lives: to find Christ in whatever humble setting he appears, bow before him in worship, and offer him our small gifts of lively faith, loving action, and intense worship.

That’s why I think that the magi, wise as they were, must have been somewhat disappointed at first, as they navigated the unremarkable streets of Bethlehem. Because that is how life works. Expectation and fulfilment are never a perfect match.

A new job glows with the promise of a shorter commute, better pay, more chances for advancement, and better management. And it may be better, but it won’t be perfect, because every job has its difficulties: at least one person who thinks he is funny, but isn’t; one manager who thinks she is organized, but isn’t; and one unpleasant job that no one wants.

A newly married couple sparkle with excitement as they learn about each other, set up a home, and meet the world as a couple. But if you are married, you don’t need me to tell you that doesn’t last. Marriage can be wonderful, but what it can’t be is a forty-year-long honeymoon.

A newborn child shines with life and promise, receiving the love and hope of parents and family and reflecting them back in sudden smiles and wide eyes. But parents know that some of that shine dims a little (usually when the child learns to talk), and at times becomes downright dull (almost always during the long years of adolescence).

It is just so with being a disciple. Whether carried by family and friends to the font, or walking on one’s own as a convert, our following of Christ starts out with joy. How could it not? To become a Christian is to hear Christ speak in our souls the words we long to hear: My Father forgives you, however deep your faults, however grievous your sins. But to stay a Christian is to hear Christ say, even more loudly, “But you must forgive others as my Father forgives you.”

To accept Christ is to enter into the kingdom of God. To stay with Christ is to repent every day.

To welcome Jesus Christ is to know the way, the truth, and the life. To live with Jesus Christ is to know rejection and suffering.

To put on Christ is to carry a yoke which is easy and a burden which is light. To abide with Christ is to take up our cross and follow him.

In the end, we know that the star did not “over-promise” the journey’s destination. The brilliance, mobility, and closeness to earth of that star were pale anticipations of the glory it foretold. Thus does that star and those wise men remind us that however good this world may be, however merry, however bright, its truest task is to point us towards, and prepare us for, a joy that will exceed our every expectation.