Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
January 5, 2020
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today, of course, we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord,
the day the “magi from the east” came to visit and worship the Child Jesus.
But this begs the question: who were these “magi from the east”?
Although we commonly refer to them as “kings,”
they are most probably not actual kings:
neither Scripture nor the early fathers of the Church calls them that.
But somewhere along the line it became common to call them kings.
Probably because of the prophesy in Psalm 72, that we sang today:
“The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;
the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage…”
And perhaps also, the prophecy of Isaiah, that we read in our first reading today:
“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”
- So, while they probably weren’t actual royalty,
- the Church does see them as fulfilling these prophesies,
- so there’s nothing wrong in calling them kings, if you want.
- But scripture and the fathers call them “Magi,”
- a Greek term that refers to a particular educated class in Persia,
- most probably priests of Zoroastrianism.
As such, they would be well educated in philosophy, and astronomy/astrology,
truly wise-men, seekers of the truth,
and also so well-read on various religions, including Judaism.
And this is probably why they followed the Star.
They probably knew about the famous prophesy of Balaam,
found in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
- Because of this prophecy, they, like many pagans of the time,
- thought that a world king would come from Israel
- And so when the Magi saw the star, they put 2 and 2 together,
- and being seekers of truth, and moved by Holy Spirit, they set out.
Nowadays all sorts of scholars try to explain what this star actually was.
Some say there was no star: it is merely made up, pious fiction.
Others suggest it was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7bc;
others say it was a supernova, or a comet.
But the Fathers of the Church did not think it was anything like that.
As St. John Chrysostom pointed out in the 4th century:
stars and comets don’t move around in the sky,
or disappear and then reappear,
or come to rest over a specific house.
So, as St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes, the Fathers taught it was
a newly created light in the sky, but very close to the earth,
specially created by God to guide the Magi to Bethlehem.
And what do the Magi find in Bethlehem?
Scripture tells us:
“going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.”
It’s important to note, that the story of the Magi is only in Matthew’s gospel,
which tends to tell the story from St. Joseph’s perspective,
but here he makes no mention of Joseph:
only “The child and Mary, his mother”
The Magi certainly would have been aware of
the very first and most important of all Jewish prophesies,
found in Genesis 3:14, when God Himself foretells
the coming of both the Messiah and his mother:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
And so the Magi come searching, and find, the new Adam and the new Eve.
And what do they do when they see Jesus and Mary?
It tells us “and they fell down and worshiped Him.”
The Greek here denotes a total bodily prostration in front of a divine king
they worship Jesus by falling on their faces.
And that worship continues, as it tells us,
“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts,
gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
Of course, the gifts show the homage, the worship, due to a king,
gifts fit for a king.
But the early church saw a rich symbolism in each of the gifts:
–gold, symbolizing his Kingship.
–frankincense, symbolizing Christ as High Priest;
incense symbolizes both prayers and smoke of sacrifices
of the priests
–and myrrh, which was used in Jewish burial, including Jesus’ burial,
so the myrrh shows that baby is born to die on the Cross
And then it tells,
“being warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed to their own country by another way.”
We see how they are open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in their hearts,
and so are spared the wrath of Herod.
And they went home filled with that Spirit.
Scripture is silent about what happened to them after this,
but strong early Church traditions tell us that when they returned home,
the three Magi, Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar,
each gave away their wealth to the poor
and spent they lives proclaiming the birth of the savior.
Then, forty years later, when the Apostle St. Thomas came east
proclaiming the Gospel
he baptized them and ordained them as priests.
One Medieval account goes on to tell us:
“Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel,
the three wise men met …in 54 (AD)
to celebrate the feast of Christmas.
Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died.”
That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it: if it isn’t true, it ought to be
So what do we learn from the story of the Magi?
First, we remember they were gentiles, but searching for truth, and finding it.
They were the first converts to the faith.
There will always wise men in every age searching for truth, for Jesus,
and they are in our midst today.
And it is wrong not to bring them to Jesus: we need to evangelize everyone
–especially at Christmas, when so many people have hearts open to Jesus
–and especially children and fallen away Catholics
–and especially so many Protestants of goodwill,
who truly love Jesus but lack the fullness of the truth about Him.
But to do that we must also be like the magi,
and remember the importance of our own continuing study of the faith,
and so continuous growth in our knowledge of and love for Jesus.
And remember, with all of their learning, there was a purpose to it.
They had learned about the star, but when they saw it,
they responded: they got up and followed wherever it led them.
It’s not just enough to know our faith, we have to respond to it.
So, for example, Jesus teaches us to love those in need
we know that, but when a needy person comes to us, do you respond?
Or when the Lord calls you to do something specific for Him, do we respond?
Let’s say you retire, and then you get invited to volunteer at the parish,
with some other charity—do you respond?
Or let’s say you love your Catholic faith, and you’re single,
and feel a call to priesthood or religious life—do you answer?
Whatever—it’s not just enough to be a Catholic,
like the Magi, Catholics also have to follow Jesus when He says,
okay, now I want you to do this, or that, for me.
Also, notice that when the star seems to have disappeared
when they got to Jerusalem, the Magi didn’t give up.
Instead, they started asking around—they kept searching, but in a different way
And then God rewarded their faithful perseverance:
the star came back: and they “rejoiced.”
Sometimes we have figurative stars in our lives that lead us to Jesus,
and then suddenly they seem to disappear.
But we must also endure in faith
For example: we’re inspired by truly holy priests and bishops:
they are like bright stars that lead us to Christ,
But then we see the scandalous behavior
of other truly unholy priests and bishops,
and the stars seem to disappear.
But when that happens, we can’t give up,
we just keep on searching as best we can,
because it’s not really the stars we’re seeking
—we’re seeking Jesus.
And in His own time, He will send us some sort of new star come to guide us to Him.
Or sometimes we just seem to go through a spiritual dry spell,
sort of a dark night of the soul.
But we preserve, keep praying, don’t give up
and then suddenly it lifts, and it’s bright again.
The Magi also remind us of the centrality of worship
They come from hundreds or thousands of miles away,
and the first thing they do is prostrate themselves before the Baby.
Do we prostrate ourselves before Him, both in our hearts and in our bodies.
The Magi knew the importance of the physical expression
of the prostration of the heart,
of falling down on their knees, and even on their faces,
to say to Him and to themselves:
you are God, King of the Universe, and I am not.
Do we make this connection?
At Mass, when you kneel, are you just following the crowd,
or are you truly prostrating yourself—body and soul—
before your beloved Jesus?
And when you leave here standing on two feet,
does that prostration remain in your heart throughout the day and week?
And do we bring Him gifts, and gifts of highest quality?
First: do we give Jesus ourselves, our very lives,
by living our lives the way He taught us to, by trying our very best
to love Him and our neighbor,
and keep all of His commandments completely and without exception?
But also, do I place everything I have at His disposal?
Do I place my gold, my money and time and talent at His discretion.
Or am I selfish, holding tight to my things, for my pleasure or my own judgment.
Do I burn my incense before Him:
do I give myself to Him in prayer and worship?
Is the Holy Mass something I endure, or a gift of praise
as I offer up myself to be united to His sacrifice of the Cross?
And do I sanctify every day,
by constantly remembering His presence and praising Him?
And finally, the wise men remind us that it doesn’t end after Christmas:
they went back and spread the gospel, telling people in a strange country
about this Jewish savior of the world
When we leave church today what will we do?
When Christmas is over what will we do?
The lesson of Magi isn’t just to come and adore Jesus,
but also to go and bring others to adore Him.
As we now move more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
let us place ourselves in the presence of the Magi.
May they guide us, as once the star guided them,
to come before the King of the Universe as we approach Him on the altar as they once approached Him in Bethlehem,
in His true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist.
May we imitate them,
prostrating ourselves in worship and offering ourselves to Him.
And with Saints Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar, and Mary, His Mother,
may we leave here today,
proclaiming the coming of Christ and His salvation,
in everything we say and do, to all we love and to all we meet.