Gospel Reflection for Jan. 3, 2020, Solemnity of the Epiphany

What compels a team of magi, men noted in the Persian Zoroastrianism religion for their search for eternal truths through the study of the stars, to travel over 1,000 miles to pay homage to the new born king in a foreign land?

We can easily take these mysterious men for granted. They appear in the Nativity creche in our homes and our churches, standing as an integral part of the entire Christmas narrative. Appearing only in Matthew’s account of the Nativity, they are known for their persistence with King Herod and for the presentation of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although Western tradition numbers them as three and has given them names of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, early Christian paintings count the magi anywhere from two to 12. The number three is standard as there are three gifts presented to the child Jesus.

Zoroastrians, who identified two principal gods one good and one evil, were well-known at the time of Jesus, and are in some ways responsible for the sense of astrology as it has come down to us. They believed that the heavens bore witness to God acting in history. The appearance of a new celestial phenomenon piqued their attention and drew them to discern that Judea was the location of the birth of a king. Some have suggested, though it might be a stretch, that the new star appeared in the constellation of Leo (the lion) which they associated with Judah, long represented as a lion.

It is, of course, one thing to see in the heavens a new star and to discern its meaning, it is another to make the commitment to then follow the direction of that star in order to pay homage to the king it represented. Theirs was no easy trek to Jerusalem. They would have needed to assemble their entourage, acquire the gifts, and secure the provisions for the journey. They would have traveled over some difficult terrain, though the Greco-Roman roads would have provided them with a fairly direct route.

They are not sure what to expect when they come to Jerusalem. Certainly the arrival of these magi would have drawn some attention. While King Herod was a man of some fame within the empire, and the citizens would have been used to visitors of nobility and prominence visiting their city, these men attracted the attention of the scholars of the law, and the seers and prophets of the royal court. Their importance as seers, men of wisdom, and ambassadors, brought them the credibility so that they would have been able to meet King Herod, now in his final years and not a well man, and to seek to honor his heir. While Herod has three surviving sons, there is no new born king in his lineage, so this child is immediately perceived as a threat to his dynasty. Herod did not suffer rivalry lightly. He even murdered three of his sons when he perceived they might be a threat to him. Therefore, it is with great interest that he seeks out this child, not to do him homage, but to do him harm.

Although the word “Epiphany” does not appear in the Gospel account, it is the expression that has come down through the ages to describe this event. An epiphany is a manifestation of God. Here it is about the sincere pursuit of truth – the truth of God acting in history, in time and place, in order to affect salvation and redemption for the people of God. The arduous trek and search by the Magi reminds us of the challenges and blessings of our own spiritual journey.

We were all in awe just a few weeks ago as we saw the great conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn at their greatest proximate points in some eight hundred years. While some wondered if this was something akin to what the Magi saw, and much ink was spilt on such musings, we forgot the deeper part of the event. For though the Magi saw the presence of the Lord revealed in the heavens by a new star, it is not the star they worshiped, rather what that star pointed them to – the messiah, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel – “God-with-us.”

So it must always be with us. When we experience through various signs, wonders, words, and actions, the presence of God in our lives, it is so easy to get caught up with the external reality that we miss the meaning – that God is with us, that he is guiding us and leading us ever closer to him.

May this Epiphany find us open to the presence and action of God in our lives.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.