The Gospel; St. Matthew 2:1
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king; behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east: and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things: he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them, where Christ should be born. And they said unto him: In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the Prophet: And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come a Governour that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said : Go, and search diligently for the young Child: and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod: the departed unto their own country another way.
As is obvious by the heading in the bulletin, today is known as the “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”, commonly called, “The Epiphany”. Indeed, the word “Epiphany”, is synonymous with “manifestation”, or “appearing”. What this means for Christians is that this “manifestation”, or “appearing”, is the form in which God fully revealed Himself to humanity. It is in this manifestation of Himself, that God offers up the ultimate Sacrifice, so that His chosen people may be released from the burden of sin.
But there is another definition for the word “Manifestation”; one that is rooted in its base word, “manifest”; “readily perceived by the eye or the understanding; evident; obvious, apparent; plain”. It is this definition that defines the earliest accounts of the revelation of God, not just to us, but to all the world.
We have already seen the testimony of the OT prophets fulfilled in the account of the Birth of Christ; and we have in addition the witness of the shepherds who visited the Christ Child after his Nativity. Now we see a further witness to this miracle by the arrival of those wise men who in obedience to their own prophecies, had followed a star for countless miles in search of the one who they believed would be the king of the Jews.
But it is not the hardships that they endured, nor the faith that it required to make this trip that I wish to focus upon; rather, I draw your attention to the actions of these “wise men” when they finally arrived at their destination.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy“. When the star stopped, it designated the location of the child that they had sought; and at the same time, it signified that their journey was at its end; it declared to these wise men, and to us, that the Savior of the World had was here. And so the reaction of these wise men to this miracle was only natural.
“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him“. How could their reaction be otherwise? This child was the culmination of their journey. This child was the object of their prophecies; this child was the singular point of all that their faith had taught them to believe. Of course, they “fell down and worshipped him“. It was “evident; obvious, apparent “ to them; They had no choice!
Ah, but then, they also offered their gifts to this child; “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh“. These days, we tend to take this verse for granted; but in the hands of these wise men, these were more than just the usual “baby shower” presents; these were offerings that acknowledged the Revelation of God; these were gifts that exemplified the Manifestation of Christ.
The first gift was that of gold. Now on the surface, this might seem to be a most practical gift for a young family, who would have had bills to pay; not the least of which would have been the rent for their space at the inn in Bethlehem. Further, we might think that this gold came in quite handy during the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt. But this gift of gold has a greater significance.
Gold is a gift for a king. When we read the detailed historical accounts of people visiting the royal courts of various countries, we see that most often, these visitors brought with them a gift from their native countries; one that not only represented their gratitude at being received by the local monarch, but also reflected the exalted status of that monarch. And in most instances, this gift was gold.
So by presenting their gift of gold, these wise men acknowledged the exalted status of this child. At the same time, they were expressing their gratitude for having been blessed to be received into the presence of this Divine Royalty. And it is notable that they withheld this gift from the “local monarch”, King Herod; for they knew that the true King was somewhere else. And it was to this true King that they presented their gift of gold.
Frankincense is likewise a substance that we might take for granted, since we likely equate it to the incense that we use at Mass. And indeed, this aromatic resin is often included in our incense. But again, this substance has a special significance; because frankincense is the gift for a priest.
Frankincense was used in the worship and sacrifices of the Temple. It was the responsibility of the Jewish priest to offer this incense, as we know from the example of the father of St. John Baptist, Zacharias, in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke (v 8 & 9); “and it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord”.
But it is here that we must remember that the Latin word often used for “high priest” is “pontifex”. And the root of this word “pontifex”, also means “bridge-maker; one who negotiates the path between God and men”. Frankincense was therefore a most appropriate gift; because it is Jesus Christ, our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), who has built the path between God and mankind. It is Jesus Christ who has opened the way and made it possible for us to enter into the very presence of God.
Finally, there is the gift of myrrh. If someone were to bring this gift to that aforementioned “baby shower”, I would imagine that the other participants, and most especially the mother of the child, would be quite offended; because it was myrrh that was used in the embalming of the bodies of the dead; myrrh is the gift for one who is to die.
I hope that by now you are starting to get the gist of the significance of these gifts; for they reflect the entirety of the Revelation, the Manifestation, of God. I hope that by now you are coming to the same realization, the same “Epiphany” that those wise men experienced.
These men, these “Gentiles”, knew that they were in the presence of Divine Royalty. They knew that this child King would bridge the path between God and man. And they knew that the building of that bridge would require a Sacrifice; it would require a Death.
And so they offered their gifts in full knowledge of significance of their actions. They offered their gold to the “King of Kings”. They offered their frankincense to the one who would build the bridge between God and man. And they offered myrrh to the one who would die for this purpose.
By the witness and actions of these three wise men, we are blessed to know the Revelation of God, the “Epiphany”, of God, the “Manifestation” of God. By their witness, we are better able to see and understand what is “evident; obvious, apparent and plain“. By their witness and actions, we know that Jesus Christ is Our King and Lord; and that he has shown us the path back to The Father. And by their witness and actions, we know that to achieve this end God has offered the ultimate Sacrifice.