Reading One: Isaiah 60:1-6
Reading Two: Ephesians 3:2-6
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany – also known as the Feast of the Three Kings / Magi.
This past summer, a couple of days before I was ordained to the priesthood, I took a small group of pilgrims to the Cathedral in Cologne where tradition claims the relics of the Three Kings are preserved. We had the opportunity to participate in a procession into the sanctuary to see them. The reliquary was brought to Constantinople in the early 4th century by St. Helena (mother of Constantine) and was later brought to Cologne, Germany by the 12th century Holy Roman Emperor (and friend of St. Hildegard) Barbarossa. In the tradition, the names of the Three Kings or Magi date back to a 6th century source: we know them today as Caspar (India), Malchior (Persia), and Balthazar (Arabia) - their names are different in the Syrian and Armenian traditions.
The issue is often raised that the scriptures do not mention three kings, and certainly they are not named. There is mentioned the 3 gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – carried by the Magi to be presented to the newborn Christ Child, but not kings. The term magi refers to a magician – not in the sense we understand magic today, but in the sense of someone skilled in what was thought of as the esoteric arts including astronomy, astrology, philosophy, and medicine. They themselves were not kings but would have been well-respected, highly-educated members of the king’s court and would have served as advisors to the king – it is King Herod who sends them to find the newborn baby. As is common in the Scriptures, God does not follow the plan, but reverses the roles. The true king that emerges in this story is not Herod, but a seemingly powerless newborn baby. The Magi, or the “wise ones” had the "eyes to see" beyond the externals.
Pope Benedict XVI described the Magi in this way: “The men of whom Matthew speaks are not just astronomers. They were 'wise.' They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and, hence, 'philosophy' in the original sense of the word.”
The texts we heard proclaimed today are rich in symbolism. The Magi, coming from the East, represent all of humanity. It is a sign that the Christ Child incarnated, not only to bring the message of light and love to the Jewish people, but to all people. Every corner of the earth from East to West is invited to participate in creating a new heaven and a new earth. The symbols of gold, frankincense, and myrrh affirm the royal, priestly, and prophetic nature of Christ.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine (a religious sister) gave me a gift of three wise women, a trio which I leave on display year-round in my office. We really do not really know who was in this caravan of wise people traveling to visit the newborn child – assuming a caravan even existed. There are many jokes circulating on Christmas cards and social media memes commenting on how different this story would be if we focused on three wise women; rather than gold, frankincense, and myrrh, women might have brought diapers, a casserole, and a cleaning crew! While it is fun to joke, in reality, there had to have been women present for Jesus’ birth and they may have had with them a supply of essential oils - frankincense and myrrh – because these oils were used by midwives to aid in the birthing process, particularly to prevent infection and help facilitate healing. It was the women who knew how to use these precious gifts.
Joseph was a righteous man. But I am going to step out on a well-informed limb here and suggest it is highly unlikely that Joseph delivered this baby. It is not impossible, but highly unlikely. So, who delivered Jesus? In one of the 2nd century apocryphal gospels (not found in the canon of scripture) entitled, The Protoevangelium of James, tradition claims a midwife delivered Jesus and then ran to share the news with Salome:
"And I [Joseph] saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither are you going? And I said: I am seeking a Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said to me: Are you of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me.
And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth…"
As part of this Feast Day celebration, it is a tradition around the world, both in Eastern and Western contexts (though it is not as common here in the U.S.) to chalk the doors of the church, homes, businesses, etc. with a blessing of the magi who were traditionally among the first visit Jesus’ home. When we were in Germany and also in Palestine, I noticed the chalk markings everywhere. The ritual is simple: take chalk and mark 20 + C + M + B + 20 on the lintel while praying for Christ’s blessing.
The letters have two meanings. First, they represent the initials of the names for the Magi — Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar — they also stand as an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat: May Christ Bless this house/church/store/building. The “+” signs represent the cross, and the “20” at the beginning and the “20” at the end mark the year.
We will take a moment now to chalk the arch above our entrance way here in the church. You are invited to add frankincense and myrrh to the incensor as well. As we bless this space, we pray that the gifts and intentions we bring to this liturgy, will also be blessed.
Photos of the reliquary in the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany 2019
Hildegard Haus Feast of the Epiphany