Isa 60:1-6; Ps Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6, Mt 2:1-12
The Great Solemnity of the Epiphany has so long been associated with the image of “Three Kings” that it’s easy to forget that Matthew nowhere mentions either the number of visitors or their kingly rank. The number three seems to have been inferred from the three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the Orthodox Church actually has a tradition of 12 visitors). Likewise, the kingly image seem to arise from the Gospel’s ancient pairing with today’s responsorial psalm: “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute” (72:10).
Matthew does, however, call the visitors “magi” (μάγοι), which could mean anything from “wiseman” and “sorcerer” to “astrologer” and “astronomer” (these categories were not exactly distinct in the ancient world, since it was only the rise of Christianity that the difference between religion, science, and magic became clear). Translating the magi into contemporary categories, we might think of them as scientists and philosophers, as the men most respected for wisdom and learning in their age.
Understood in this light, the readings for the Epiphany make an incredibly bold—seemingly arrogant—claim for Christ and His Church. When he portrays the magi adoring Christ, St. Matthew symbolically portrays all human wisdom finding fulfillment in Him, the “desired of all nations.” St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speaks even more straightforwardly: “Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is the vision that motivated St. Paul to evangelize the Greeks, St. Patrick to preach to the Irish, and St. Francis Xavier to baptize the Japanese. The goal of the Catholic Church is to gather every person and every nation into herself. No exceptions.
Still, it’s hardly a secret that polite society exerts a strong pressure on Christians to abandon this vision. A young Catholic woman, raised in a strictly secular family, told me recently about a conversation that she had with her uncle. The topic of religion came up, which her uncle brought to an abrupt halt by declaring, “I think the biggest single mistake you can make in life is to be certain that you have the truth.” I think we’ve probably all had a conversation like this. To speak of a single Truth for all mankind, and to dedicate one’s life to witnessing to that Truth, seem proud folly. It even sounds vaguely menacing: “My Church can beat up your church.”
But the word “epiphany” suggests why, in the case of Christian Truth, certainty and humility go hand in hand. For “epiphany” means “manifestation.” It means that Truth has “appeared” to us on His own initiative. Confusion arises because many picture all truth like scientific truth, as something to be wrested from nature by force and then used to manipulate other things and other people. The highest truth, by contrast, “appears.” He is an “epiphany.” Whereas scientific truth stands for our intellectual power; Christian Truth implies our intellectual weakness. The attitude of the wisemen is instructive. Finally certain that they had found the Truth in Bethlehem, they did not exchange smug, knowing glances. They knelt before this Truth in reverence and awe.
Still, it’s not quite enough just to say that truth “appeared.” All sorts of things “appear” unexpectedly: cars in our blind spot, tax audits, hurricanes. We don’t celebrate these appearances. We do celebrate “Epiphany,” by contrast, because what “appeared” was supremely good, the key to fullness of life, a gift. Those who do not share this belief will naturally think evangelization arrogant. But these same people seldom object to the fact that the U.S. government sends secular missionaries all over the world every year. Peace Corps volunteers, for example, teach citizens of developing nations to balance their diet, rotate their crops, improve their sanitation. Their message often comes into conflict with longstanding customs and cultural practices. Few call them arrogant, though; they are convinced that these volunteers are bringing a “better life.” Christians see proclaiming the faith in much the same way.
Today’s feast, then, suggests a few questions for examination of conscience: Do I believe what Epiphany celebrates? Do I experience Christ and His Church as truth and salvation? And not just for me personally, but for every person and nation? If so, do I prudently share my faith with others? Do I study the faith—according to my ability—so that I can speak to the “magi” of my age?
On this last point of study, I would add that Pope Benedict is sensitive to the fact that many are not effective evangelizers because, for one reason or another, they are not sufficiently catechized. In response, the Hoy Father recently announced a Year of Faith, beginning on October 11 of this year (the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council). He hopes that the year “will be a moment … to reinforce our faith in him and to proclaim him with joy to the people of our time.” As we prayerfully consider our own participation, let’s recall that, in any age, a Christian who is informed and joyful is the brightest star for all “magi” who sincerely seek Truth.