The feast of the Epiphany, officialy celebrated starting in at least 361. “Epiphany”, Greek epi “upon” and phainein “bring to light, make appear”. We can say manifestation. We celebrate God incarnate, the Word made flesh, made manifest, here, to the world beyond Israel, in the persons of the wise men. The first to visit the Christ-child were the
shepherds, simple and lowly, who were Jews. The second to visit the Christ-child were the wise men, these other figures, wise and powerful, who represent the learned pagan
world. The first reading (Isaiah 60:3) speaks prophetically of them:
“Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The two visits are a response to a mysterious, powerful attraction. The shepherds and the wise men are drawn. There is no commandment; only an attraction. The exact identity of the wise men, or Magi, is difficult to specify. From where did they come?
Who exactly are they? We can only guess... The term Magi comes from a Persian
term, “mag” for “priest”. Whatever the case may be—pagan priests, kings, astrologers, they are traditionally portrayed as coming in full regalia, with gifts. They come with all their learnedness, rather moved in their minds. Theirs is an attraction of which we may not often think. The simplicity of the shepherds, moved in their hearts, seems more accessible. The Magi are mysteriously moved in their minds. They come reading a star, which, for them, indicates the birth of a king. These mysterious figures come and they find God enfleshed (!?!?). How much did they grasp this? It’s difficult to say, but they do ask,
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising.”
It seems that they come because they have been given a gift, before even seeing Christ: faith. They are given faith, not because of privilege, but because they are seekers. God likes seekers. God extends Himself to those who seek. Faith is a gift, given freely, which entails a very subtle attraction to God, which enables us to “look” beyond appearances, to discern mystery from above. This discernment is beautifully described in a commentary attributed to Saint Augustine, (+430),
They had been taught that this Child was one, in worshipping whom they would certainly secure that salvation which is of God. Neither His age was such as attracts men’s flattery; His limbs not robed in purple, His brow not crowned with a diamond, no pompous train, no great army, no glorious fame of battles, attracted these men to Him from the remotest countries, with such earnestness of supplication. There lay in a manger a Boy, newly born, of infantine size, of pitiable poverty. But in that small Infant lay hid something great, which these men, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had learned not of earth but of heaven.
With the eyes of the body, they see a fragile baby. With the eyes of faith, they see God. Only faith can bridge the apparent abyss between child and God. They indeed find what they were seeking in faith, and they are “overwhelmed with joy”. “Overwhelmed” suggests God’s very own joy. One of the Church Fathers tells us that
“a person rejoices truly when he/she rejoices on God’s account, who is the true joy.”
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”(v 11)
Adoration is always the first, fundamental act in the presence of God. They then offer gifts, gifts in keeping with the reality of this child, gifts that reveal Jesus to us. Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, 6th-century and others tell us:
This is very much like our situation regarding the Eucharist. Only faith can bridge the apparent abyss between bread and God. If we come seeking in faith, we will be “overwhelmed with joy”. Let us adore. Let us offer the gift of ourselves to Him who gives us His heart, with meekness and vulnerability, in this way.