Today the Church throughout the world celebrates the great and ancient feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Whereas the feast of the Nativity became dominant in the Latin Church, the Epiphany still takes precedence in the Orthodox Churches. Indeed, it had been the original feast of the Word Incarnate even in Rome, but gradually, over time and especially across the Alps, the birthday of Christ, rather than the manifestation of the Word of God in human flesh to all peoples, came to the fore.
You may recall how the recreation in a cave outside of Greccio, in the early 13th Century, of the scene of Christ’s birth by St. Francis of Assisi laid the foundation for our custom of the Christmas creche.
Despite that, in Latin America, as in Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy, Epiphany with its pageantry of the Three Kings, is still celebrated with more pomp and brio than Christmas. The imagery of St. Matthew’s account of the Magi’s pilgrimage still compels Catholic imagination.
The magi, however, are not kings but wise men, astrologers who study the movement of the stars; they may have been sorcerers or magicians. It’s the symbolic gifts that they offer which led to the idea that they were royal and the gifts that settled their number as three (St. Matthew does not say how many they were). During the era of the Crusades, with the rise of monarchy as a force to be dealt with, they were not only recognized as kings but Cologne Cathedral claimed to have their relics, magnificently enshrined. That reliquary is venerated to this day and the feast day–now memorial–of the Three Kings is still on the liturgical calendar for the diocese of Cologne.
Cutting through all that, the fundamental message is that they are pagans, not members of the Chosen People; yet God has spoken to them, despite their state of ritual impurity outside the precepts and covenant given to Moses. It is bold for the Evangelist Matthew, a Jewish sage himself, to present these idolaters , these uncircumsized wizards, before the One whom the prophets foretold would save God’s people. In Matthew’s Gospel, his own people ignore the birth of Christ. Herod, a very marginal Jewish convert, would try to destroy him, attempting to consolidate his tenuous hold on the Jewish people and his own simulated Jewishness. Ironically, it is these pagans who offer the homage that his own people do not. The child is taken from Israel to Egypt for his safety. This is a powerful message from the Evangelist to the descendants of Abraham for whom he composed his Gospel; it is a shocking rebuke.
Do not continue to harden your hearts, St. Matthew says in effect, to the Messiah who has come, even as the pagans seek him out. As we appreciate now, so much of what Matthew addresses to the Jewish establishment in his Gospel is addressed to the Christian community for whom he wrote. In other words, he is addressing the readers and listeners of his Gospel. He is addressing us. The Solemnity of the Epiphany is a rebuke to us today. Does our world follow the lead of the Magi or the complacent officials in Jerusalem?