This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 2:1–12:
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Why do I start today’s reflection with a Christmas carol? Because Christmas isn’t over — yet. That might be an epiphany to some readers, although in fairness probably not many of you, because you’re pretty smart already. Today we come to the end of our Christmas cycle with the Feast of the Epiphany, and tomorrow is a day in which many cultures celebrate the end of the cycle with the Feast of Kings. These celebrate the adoration of the Magi, who traveled to Bethlehem by the star to recognize the Lord’s arrival.
What is an epiphany? In a normal sense, it is a flash of revelation or understanding that reveals an essential meaning or nature of the object of consideration. Thus, “do you know what I know?” in this carol (titled “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, by the way) is a hint at an epiphany — the possession of a great and wonderful knowledge that the speaker wishes to impart. The shepherd boy wants to announce the arrival of a very special child to the most powerful man in the land, a point to which we’ll return shortly.
In the theological sense, an epiphany is synonymous with a theophany, the arrival of God in physical manifestation in our time and space. The scriptures give us several examples of theophanies, from the arrival of the three “visitors” to Abraham, to Moses and the burning bush, all the way through to Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration. Theophanies characteristically produced awe and fear in those who witnessed them, as they demonstrated in some form God’s great glory and pierced through human perceptions of the material world.
In today’s Gospel, epiphanies of all sorts abound. The first epiphany for the Magi took place outside of this Gospel reading, when they used their astronomical skills to determine that a celestial event of such an unusual nature might be a sign from God in the first place. When they arrive in Jerusalem to find Jesus, Herod’s epiphany takes a much darker form. Herod recognizes that a claim to kingship would conflict with his own and might be much more popular to a kingdom in thrall to the Romans. Herod’s participation in Judaism was strictly political and for his own purposes; even the Second Temple was intended to demonstrate his divine appointment to the task. If the Lord anointed a new king, that would destroy his political claim to leadership.
The Magi, being outsiders to Judea, were apparently unaware of the danger they had inadvertently created. They continue on to Bethlehem with Herod’s blessing to see Jesus. When they finally find Him, they immediately experience the theological epiphany, even though this theophany comes in the gentlest form possible — a baby. We can deduce that the Magi recognized this theophany, furthermore, because they were able to comprehend the vision granted them in the dream about Herod and his aims. Thus the theophany led them to another epiphany, as Merriam-Webster defines it, as a “sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”
What follows this sequence of events? Our Gospel reading last week picked up the thread, in which Joseph receives a new vision of the danger coming from Herod. He takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, while Herod acts out in exactly the opposite manner of the king in our beloved Christmas carol. Rather than call the people to the epiphany of Christ, Herod goes on a murderous rampage to kill this challenge to his earthly authority. Herod, like his son will later do twice, willfully denies himself the opportunity for that epiphany by rejecting Jesus in the most final way possible.
Today’s Gospel is about more than just retelling the story of Jesus’ birth, and our Christmas season offers more than just a few days out of the year to celebrate it. The narrative challenges us to choose as well. Do we recognize the epiphany of our Lord having come to Earth, exchanging His divinity for our humanity to save us from sin? Do we allow ourselves the opportunity to embrace that “marvelous exchange” even with all of our imperfections and shortcomings, and all of our ambitions and self-regard? Or do we act as Herod did, rejecting the possibility and denying Him in order to maintain our own illusions of supremacy?
This moment each year is our opportunity for epiphanies of our own. May we leave our hearts open to them as the Magi did.
The front-page image is a detail from “Triptych with the adoration of the Magi,” by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, 1517. Currently on display at the Amsterdam Museum, The Netherlands. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.