Mysteries of the Magi: A homily for the Epiphany of the Lord (Year A)

three-wise-menToday Holy Church celebrates the Epiphany of the Lord, his manifestation to the Magi.  There are several Magi mysteries and I want to consider some.

First, the Bible does not tell us how many people exactly it was that made the journey to the Child Jesus.  We do know there were three presents, so we assume that there were most likely three magi—one for each gift. Our tradition does name the Magi Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, and their remains are preserved in Cologne Cathedral.  That said, there was probably an entourage of people with them. However many there were, we know there was more than one.  That teaches us our first lesson: we cannot search for Jesus alone.  We need one another–which is why God gave us families, friends, parishes.  Had Casper been on his own, or any of the others, he would not have made it.

Second, we do not know who the magi really were.  I borrow from catholiceducation.org:

In Greek, the original language of the Gospel’ the word magos (magoi, plural) has four meanings: (1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation’ astrology, fortune-telling, divination, and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before mentioned practices.

It is interesting, no?  (1) If they were kings, then that’s pretty special: it is not just every day that a king walks away from his kingdom.  Surely there were regnal responsibilities that they had to fulfill. Surely they had important things to do, people to see.  But they got up and left.  (2) Now—if they were scientists, then that is pretty great: their science led them to God, as authentic science always does. And if were soothsayers and fortune tellers, that’s pretty special, too, because it means that they realized that that none of the tarot cards or ouija boards they had perhaps previously put their faith in or used to navigate the world would not do the trick. The solution, the meaning—they found all that and more in the Child Jesus.  In that they showed their true wisdom and became true wise men. (3) If they were magicians and clowns, that is also special because they finally found something to take seriously, something to give their lives to: Christ God.  (4) Finally, if they were swindlers who used their magic and tarot card shops and astrology labs to misguide people, then the fact that they made their trip to Jesus is pretty neat, too—because then we have in front of us three conversion stories.  While we do not know the exact identity of the magi, in a sense we do—because no matter who they had been, in finding Jesus they became our fellow Christians and sons of God.

Third, we do not know how long it took the magi to get to Jesus.  Was it twelve days?  A month?  A year?  Two years?  If the magi lived in Persia and went to Bethlehem, that’s 1500 miles. On a camel. That is a long journey! Lots of sweat, dehydration, hunger, sunburn, pains and sores.  What perseverance, what determination, and most of all—what an incredible longing for God!  Finding God is worth the years and trials and tribulations that it takes.  As a priest I try more than anything to drill into people a hunger for God, a desire for Him. Without that desire, we go down bad roads; with it, we go to the heavenly Bethlehem.  When the magi laid eyes on Jesus, I bet every pain and every sore they got on their journey went away.

A fourth mystery is this: we do not know where the magi went.  We know they went to Jesus, but did they go to the manger?  Our gospel today says they went to his “house.” But the Greek word for that is best translated to “dwelling place”—which could be a manger. Or it could be a house.  Most think it’s a house, and perhaps that is where the tradition of writing the Epiphany blessing on top of our doors comes from.  The tradition is to write this: “20 + C + M + B + 16”.  It’s the year separated by the initials of the magi.  CMB also stands for a Latin phrase: “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ Bless this House).  It is an invitation to let God into our lives, our houses, our rooms.

Last mystery: we don’t know who brought what gift. I go with tradition, which says this:

  • Caspar, green cloak, King of Sheba, frankincense (CGF)
  • Melchoir: gold cloak, King of Arabia, gold (MGG)
  • Balthazar, purple cloak, King of Egypt, myrrh (BPM)

We know that we each must bring gifts to Jesus, gifts of worship (frankincense), gifts of treasure (gold), and gifts of our very mortality, our very lives (myrrh).

Some of the circumstances around the magi may well be a mystery.  But the lessons are clear!

  1. Like the magi, we need each other on our journey to God
  2. Like the magi, no matter who we once were–kings, scientists, soothsayers–God calls us to himself
  3. Like the magi, we need a strong desire in our hearts for the journey….because there may be a lot of desert, a lot of pain along the way
  4. Like the magi, we are to find God in our houses. Our homes should be sacred places.
  5. Like the magi, we give God what is most dear–our worship, our possessions, our lives!

May the Blessed Mother help us on our way.