We all know the story the Church celebrates this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday. We love the strange elements it introduces into the Christmas story: The star, the camels, and the magi with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
What we might not realize is that those three gifts are not just strange foreign objects from the past, but a great shorthand way to remember what Jesus wants each of us to give him every day.
Jesus wants us to give him “gold” by “shining in his sight with the light of wisdom.”
St. Gregory the Great explained the meaning of each gift and said Christ expects them from each of us, every day. When he compared gold to wisdom, everyone knew what that meant.
Wisdom is the first of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We receive it at baptism and it gives us the ability to “relish what is right,” to see the goods of God and love them. But it only works if we give it back to God. The Gospel shows us what happens when we use wisdom only for ourselves.
Herod, troubled by the wise men’s news, assembles the chief priests to answer the question: Where is the Christ to be born? They answer “Bethlehem of Judea,” and explain exactly how they know.
The specificity of their answer is astounding. They know exactly what the Scriptures say, but none of them rushes to the manger.
St. Augustine says, they “read the Scripture unprofitably.” That’s putting it mildly.
The first reading from Isaiah predicted the magi’s visit and described how the priests ought to have reacted to it: “You shall be radiant at what you see; your heart shall throb and overflow.”
But the chief priests hearts’ didn’t throb. They had intellectualized their faith and failed to take it to heart.
The Egyptian oasis through which Mary, Joseph and Jesus escaped from Herod
Contrast the priests with the wise men.
Not only did the magi have the intelligence to know that the astronomical signs they saw were significant, they had that added quality that our Epiphany hymns stress: They had “wonder.”
The very fact that they brought gifts of gold in the first place showed that they knew the value of the signs they saw in the heavens.
How about us? Do the facts of our faith fill us with wonder? Does our intellect touch our hearts? Or, like Herod’s priests, do we have belief without wonder; faith without love?
Likewise, we either give Jesus “frankincense,” or end up like Herod.
St. Gregory says frankincense, like the incense used at Mass, symbolizes prayer. Herod, a Jewish king known for his lack of piety, could have used some of that.
When the magi come looking for Jesus, he tells them: “Go and search diligently for the Child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I, too, may go and do him homage.” But he really only wanted to eliminate Jesus as a threat to the power that he held so dear.
The magi were the opposite.
When they finally met the baby Jesus, the magi did what Herod only pretended he wanted to do: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
Herod’s whole life would have changed if he had done that. Ours can change even now if we do.
But how often do we avoid prayer out of pride, thinking Jesus will challenge our selfish priorities? How often do we reject prayer out of vanity, thinking it will embarrass us in front of others? And how often do we dismiss prayer out of our love of comfort, thinking it will be too much bother?
St. Gregory said we should offer Christ daily frankincense “by the sweet savor of our prayers.”
King Herod’s ritual baths discovered in Machaerus, where John the Baptist’s death was ordered
Last, we need to give Jesus “myrrh,” as the magi did.
Myrrh was a healing ointment and a burial ointment. Therefore, “In myrrh is symbolized mortification of the flesh,” said St. Gregory. “We offer myrrh when we offer up the desires of the flesh.”
The magi did exactly that at the end of the Gospel.
They had received a royal welcome from Herod and been treated as scholars by his leading intellects. They were promised more of the same if they returned to Herod as requested. But they refused. They gave it all up.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
They saw their lives as a quest for Jesus Christ, and once they had that, they were satisfied.
We can live our lives the same way, forsaking all the lesser goods that fascinate us and choosing him. Starting today.
How many Holy Innocents were killed by King Herod?