I noticed in the news that books are a major source of gifts for Christmas. Many, many of those gifted books are biographies or auto-biographies. There is a fascination for us about the lives of others, how they lived, what they felt or thought, and ultimately knowing the secrets of their lives. Sometimes we even compare our story to theirs. Our journey may be quieter or less grand, but still we know that the human pathways of living are somewhat similar. Epiphany is an important story for us to hear of a road taken by astrologers, passing strangers who venture forth because of their hopes and dreams. In many ways this story is also ours.
Isaiah in this passage this week end makes Jerusalem a grand and high place. This reading is the last part of a three-author—each called Isaiah—book that begins before Israel’s exile, continues with the painful, long exile itself, and finally the release and homecoming back to the Promised Land. This great wonderful day of release from bondage, this dream of triumph and glory is what is proclaimed at Mass today. Isaiah looks ahead to the great time when the city is awash in the Lord’s own light and brilliance. All roads lead to Jerusalem, this shining city on a hill. Jerusalem is addressed as a person to whom everyone hastens with great joy.
This reading anticipates all that is good in the world and in people’s lives. Everyone comes home. First come the ordinary people and then the rest of the world. All of Jerusalem opens to receive all the riches of other nations that flow ever toward it. The beasts of burden, dromedaries and camels laden with gold and frankincense mentioned in this reading, invoke in our mind’s eyes the wealthy and royal retinues that in Isaiah’s prophecy will one day trek toward Jerusalem.
We, however, in this time and space, think about the coming of the kings at Epiphany. The first reading matches up with the later coming of the astrologers, or magi, the ones who see the yet to happen and who consult stars and dreams, as we find in our Gospel. These exotic astrologers travelled a long and perhaps wandering route. They consulted the local potentate, King Herod, who paid no attention whatsoever to any of the Jewish ways. Herod would have paid no mind to these astrologers, except that they seemed to flash a dire warning sign to him. They threatened his hold on power, so he summoned them and cunningly and allegedly innocently inquired about how they read the stars and what it might mean. He secretly meant for him, not others. That duty done, the astrologers found their way to the Holy Family and offered the gifts fit for a truly royal child—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In interpreting this story, we realize that the astrologers, or magi, stand in for all the nonJews of the world, just as the shepherds on Christmas night stood in for all the poor and dispossessed, the most illogical of all worshipers. Bear in mind no one would have expected the glad tidings to be delivered to the lowly shepherds and thus no one quite expected Gentile astrologers from greater Persia to make their way to Israel and break open the story of salvation to the whole surprised world. We also realize from his story of conversion that Saul, now Paul, that no one expected him to carry the good news of the Messiah to the non-Jewish world. Paul reminds the Ephesians and himself once again of the amazing truth of his conversion.
In many countries and in the churches of the Eastern Rite, Epiphany takes primacy of place over Christmas as a feast day. Gifts are given, in imitation of the gift-giving of the magi. Doors are thrown open in welcome on this Twelfth Day of Christmas, “Little Christmas,” as it sometimes is known in the northern latitudes. No matter where you are or how you celebrate Christmas, this is the day for us to open our doors and hearts in welcome. This is the day we honor all seekers and seers, are helped by them, and help them as best we can.
Father BrianBACK TO LIST