Gentile_da_Fabriano_001Adoration of the Magi, da Fabriani 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

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…..on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.    Matthew 21:11.

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There in the picture above are all the trappings of the traditional image of the Three Kings (they have crowns, even if one resembles an early baseball cap), the precious gifts and the impression they must have inspired as seen in the awestruck crowd. Little Christmas, or Twelfth Night, is upon us! More formally, today is the feast of the Epiphany, a word which comes directly from the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, epipháneia, meaning a manifestation or revelation. In this context, the revelation is that Jesus is more than a normal new-born baby, but the King of the Jews, as the Magi themselves said. Their expensive gifts certainly suggest their strong belief in that title. And note there is no word about how many magi there were; more than one, as Magi is in the plural, but we know no more than that. The three costly gifts suggest there were three visitors, and they might well have been three wealthy kings. We’ll never know.

three kings

“Severa in Deo Vivas” (Severa, (May You) Live in God), Sacophagus 3rd Century, Museo delle Civilta Romana, Rome, Italy.

But what is behind all this joy and merriment? What are the wondrous messages contained in this biblical event? Why should we all be so happy? Well, firstly, everything up to the arrival of the Magi had been within a Jewish context. The Jewish prophets had declared that the Messiah would come from the Jewish city of Bethlehem; he would lead the Jewish people to peace, prosperity and happiness. Mary and Joseph were devout Jewish people, following the Law and obeying the prescriptions involved with their faith: traveling to Jerusalem, for example, to present their son to God in the Temple and for Mary to be purified as instructed in Leviticus 12:1-8. They also traveled there to participate in Passover ceremonies (Luke 2:14) (and note that the distance between Nazareth and Jerusalem is about 75 miles; on foot…). The first shepherds were Jewish; they understood as best they could, as they were probably not too well educated, that this event was truly significant. The angels had told them so! Jewish hopes placed on the expected Messiah’s shoulders also included a military expectation: they believed it would be the Messiah who would violently expel the pagan Romans from the Holy Land. But today’s event does not play into that expectation at all. Also, remember that wise men were from the east. That meant they were not Jewish, and the conclusion, or revelation, or epiphany, is that everyone, from every tradition, people, belief – everyone – was and is invited to the crib. There was to be no more exclusive Jewish-only message. We are all of us welcome, a revolutionary concept in traditional Judaism, one which would almost tear the early church to pieces. Then that word Magi. It is a transliteration of the Greek word μαγος (magos) itself a transliteration of the Persian word maguš, a term possibly applied to Persian Zoroastrian priests, reputed to be superb astrologers and more (the word magic comes from the same source).

All that in itself is fascinating. Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion still present today, stands apart from most other ancient religions in its belief in one god alone, and some scholars believe it influenced the three great modern monotheistic faiths. It originated in Persia, present day Iran. So these important men represent a radical new dynamic in the arrival of the Messiah, as he would be The One to lead everybody, from every persuasion and tradition. And so it came to be. Hence today’s feast is a very joyful, even liberating feast day. It indicates that no-one is excluded from the very Jewish hope and expectation in the arrival of a true leader who would be the source of life and light, one whose love would expand that Jewish hope into welcoming everyone openly and freely into his arms. No-one is excluded, and we are all given the hope and direction in life which will lead to eternal happiness. Likewise, we are promised even now a glimpse of heaven if we use our gifts as God wishes, serving others, to God’s greater glory. The three gifts can signify this: gold for the knowledge we are doing God’s will, frankincense for our worship of and obedience to God throughout our lives in what we say, think and do, and myrrh for those difficulties and challenges each of us endures and will endure and overcome in doing that. 

S/W Ver: 85.9B.E5P
The tradition in Spain and some Latin American countries is that the Three Kings bring gifts to children at Christmas. In recent years, this has been combined with the tradition of Santa Claus, so now they often appear in shopping malls. Children have the opportunity to be photographed sitting on their knees, and then posting a letter with their requests in the mail box in the distance.                                                      

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.



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