Father Mitch Pacwa's homily for the Epiphany
Ephesians Chapter 3 is one of a number of places where St. Paul speaks about the mystery of Revelation. He uses this word following the prophet Daniel who, in his revelation of various dreams and other revelations, identifies them as mysteries known only to God. And St. Paul uses that for the even more profound mystery than the statue of gold, silver, and bronze, and iron. He uses it for the mystery of the revelation of God made flesh.
And so we have that reading today because this Epiphany day celebrates that manifestation. That’s what epiphany means: a manifestation. A manifestation of what? The manifestation of the mystery of God made flesh. And this is a manifestation to the nations. This is our focus today.
This is the reason that we have the reading from Isaiah 60. This is a passage that speaks to Jerusalem because–remember at this time that Isaiah’s writing, the people of Judah had already been in exile, they had lived in Babylon, they came back, they started to build the temple, and then stopped, and finally, they finished it in 516 BC; this is probably right around the year of 473, the Jubilee, the first jubilee after they had finished the temple. And in this jubilee, he speaks of a great hope.
Now, again, it’s important to remember, they had lived among the Babylonians and Babylon was a very cosmopolitan city. People from all over the Middle East came to Babylon. Many of them lived there because the Judahites were not the only people forced into exile there. The Babylonians held a lot of people captive. And of course the Persians conquered it, bringing yet more people into the city from other countries. They were well aware of these other nations. And they knew of their mythologies; they knew of their doctrines. They had to listen to the Babylonian story of creation every Babylonian new year, which is in the springtime–at the spring equinox. And that’s why they say that darkness covers the earth.
He knew and the other people of Judah knew that there was a darkness in these mythologies, these philosophies. They didn’t have that revelation of a full truth. They had various things that they knew to be good, and there’s some–not total depravity, that kind of thing–there are some good elements you can read about in their mythologies, but for the most part it was pretty dark. Lots of violence and lust involved with their gods. They were the violent ones and the lustful ones. And that’s why there were thick clouds covering these people.
And one of the elements that Isaiah had criticized earlier, in Chapter 46, was astrology. That was part of their darkness. They believed that at the creation, their god, Mardu, had put the stars in the sky, which was actually the rib cage of his dead grandmother. He had killed his grandmother. That’s a little bit of darkness there. And the stars were there to control the destinies of gods and men. That’s the line in their mythology. That’s darkness. The Greeks had similar thoughts with their mythology. Not even Zeus, their chief God, could change destiny. If there was something that had been decreed by the three goddesses who wove history into being, then there was nothing he could do about it.
And in contrast to that dark, thick cloud covering the peoples, darkness covering the earth, Jerusalem is the place where the one light shines. This is the place where God’s light shines. The temple is restored. The prophets had been writing. They had the law from mount Sinai given them by Moses. There was light. And that’s where they say it’s a light that is so strong–and it’s really amazing.
A lot of people become scandalized when they read the history of ancient Israel, when they were fighting their neighbors and sometimes wiping them out–not always but sometimes–and that way they were acting just like the other people at the time of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the other Israelites. The whole world was in a period of chaos in which people were being wiped out. That was the time of the Trojan war and civilizations were just wiped out around the whole middle east and even into the Mediterranean far to the west.
And Israel was just like their neighbors. They shared in that darkness, which makes today’s passage all the more remarkable because it shows that as God’s light and his commandments began to transform them, they could see that they had to change their attitudes to include the nations beyond themselves. And this is why they proclaim here, “nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” Look about and see how these nations come to you. And they’re to welcome them.
As a matter of fact, just four chapters earlier, in Chapter 56, is the very verse that we post up front of EWTN; “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations;” that line was applied to the temple in Jerusalem in Isaiah 56. And we continue to put it forward.
Most of us are not from Jewish background. Most of us come from the nations. But we learn from the prophets of Judah, this ability to welcome the nations, just like we have been welcomed as people from all different parts of the world, because this Gospel spread throughout the world and continues to spread. This is the great revelation that he gives in a jubilee back in 473. And that’s why you see the next chapter mention the Spirit of the Lord is upon me; in a year of favor I proclaim release–that year of favor is the jubilee, that’s how we know that.
So, here we see these passages pulled together, and especially this prophecy that they will come from all of these different nations far away, from Africa and from Asia, and they will bring gold and frankincense. So this is another reason that we have this reading for today. It’s with that background, the proclamation of the mystery of the fulfillment of prophecy, just like Daniel had to explain mysteries that were prophetic in the Old Testament, and now Paul is saying this New Testament manifestation, this New Testament revelation is also a mystery, and this mystery is of the manifestation of the light in the darkness of the nations. With that background we can take a look at today’s Gospel.
The Magi are a group from Persia. Again, the Judahites would have known of them, having lived in that area. And many of the people of Judah had been scattered on, beyond Babylon, over into the Persian empire. And we see that in the book of Esther and other passages. In fact, in Ezra and Nehemiah, and we see how Jews had lived in Persia, and they knew well of the Magi. And the Magi were, in some way, part of this darkness, because they practiced astrology. Some of the more recent translations call them astrologers. That’s just translating the Persian word magi, meaning astrologers. That’s why they’re observing stars. That’s what astrologers do.
I can remember back years ago when the new age movement was more popular, people were saying, well, see, the magi used astrology to find Jesus. Wrong answer. Not quite, not quite. The star led them to Herod. That’s where they went, to Herod, the murderer of infant children.
Herod was at the end of his reign. He knew he was sick. Everyone around him knew he was sick. And he knew that they knew. That’s why he killed two of his own sons right around this time. Because he was afraid they wanted to be king earlier than he was ready to let go of life, that they were going to help him let go of life. He expected an assassination. And he was ready–in fact, he arrested a couple of hundred teenagers because one of his lines was, “I know the people won’t mourn than for me.” In fact, they kind of hated him for the other murders he had been doing all along, his favorite wife, his brother, his best friend, two of his sons, and lots of other people. And Herod figured that out, I will have these young men arrested, have them all killed. They come from the leading families of the country. They won’t cry for me when I die but I will give them something to cry about. That was his attitude. Fortunately for the young men, the guards said, “Herod is dead, no need to kill these guys. They didn’t do anything.” They let them go. But that was a close call. And that was his mentality. And that is the person to whom the star led them. That was where astrology brought them.
In some ways, you couldn’t call him a patron saint, but he would be a model for many of our politician who still try to get mothers to turn against their own children when they’re in the womb and even beyond the womb. So we have plenty of herods in office to be sure all around the world and in our country. But this is where the star brought them.
When they get to Herod, he’s confused and scared. He is already killing people who want to take his throne. That’s what he is afraid of here–that’s why he is so afraid; he’s dying. And he is having this last grasp for power before he does. He doesn’t know, but he asked the scribes; the scribes were the theologians and they read from Micah, Chapter 5, a prophecy. And this is very important. This gets back to the point about Jerusalem being the place where there is light in the midst of the thick clouds that cover the peoples and the darkness that covers the people. This light of revelation from God. God had predicted back in the 720s BC, more than 700 years earlier, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
And it is Scripture, not the star, that leads them to Bethlehem–that’s how they know to go to Bethlehem–that God’s revelation, the mystery that he had made known earlier, he now makes real with the birth of the second person of the Trinity, as man truly in the flesh, in Bethlehem.
And then they go and are led by a star, but at this point it’s guided by Scripture, by the Word of God. And what is also very important is that when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they worshiped him. The translation said they prostrated. Proskyneō means to prostrate but also is the word to worship, as in, “you shall worship the Lord your God, who alone should you adore,” that word worship is proskyneō; the same word here.
They worshiped him and did him homage and they opened their treasures. And their gifts are very interesting. They have three levels of meaning. On one hand, the gold, and frankincense, predicted in Isaiah Chapter 60, are here presented. But that’s the meaning from Scripture. What’s the meaning for them? What would the Magi have on their mind?
We know Magi used gold, frankincense and myrrh in their divination; these were the tools of their astrological trade. And what they are doing is realizing the star had a limited ability to reveal to them this newborn king. The Scripture did. And when they see him, they laid down the tools of their astrological trade because they have come across the light of the world, Jesus, who is the light of the world undoes the need for astrology and such foolishness, and they lay those gifts–that would have been more on their mentality to give up the darkness and the thick cloud of superstition.
The third level of meaning is for Christ and in fact, when you see in New Orleans the colors of green and gold and violet or purple, that those colors represent the king. That’s why they have king cake and they put those colors on the cakes, because these gifts represent something of Christ. The gold is a sign of his kingship. That’s the metal of a king. And the frankincense is for adoration of God. That’s the kind of incense that we offer to the Lord God, frankincense. The myrrh is the most ominous. That was used for anointing corpses. Can you imagine if at some baby’s baptism or birth party somebody said, “here is some formaldehyde, he will need it some day”? Well, yeah, he might but that’s not what you usually give a baby, something that is for his death and burial. But this child was born to die in order to redeem the world from sin and give us eternal life. So the myrrh speaks of his coming salvific death, and that meaning for Christ is also what we remember.
So at this point, after having let them meet the mystery of Christ, the Lord speaks to them directly in their dream. Now, they’re in a relationship, and the Lord God directs them away from Herod who will soon enough come and kill the Holy Innocents. Again, not unlike politicians of the modern era of our own country. And that they go to their country in another way, and we know the rest of the story that gets saint Joseph involved.
Our task is to listen to this revelation, to know this manifestation to our hearts, to contemplate the depths and to worship Christ, to do him homage, and to give up any of our own sins, lay that before his feet, and turn towards his word, toward him, and the reality of his kingship, his divine nature, and his redemption of our souls, so that the Lord can then use us to scatter the darkness and remove the clouds over those who reject Christ and bring them the same mystery of good news.