Homily for Epiphany: Desired of All Nations

January 8, 2012


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.” Read the rest of this entry »