This Sunday is the Epiphany. We know that it was celebrated at least as far back as 380 AD in the Christmas sermons of Saint Gregory. The Epiphany brings the message of Jesus to the Gentiles (non-Jews). It means the revelation of something far greater than what we perceive with our feeble and limited senses. Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior arrive at the manger from the East: astrologers, wise men, kings. The Spanish call it “El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos.” They have traveled at least 1,000 miles. The seekers find a simple baby. But they knew that this was no mere baby. What makes the visitors from the East so interesting is what they bring to Jesus. The first gift is gold. No king would bring anything inferior, such as silver or bronze to another king. The only acceptable precious metal gift for a king was gold. “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign.” This gift shows us that this king is implicitly acknowledging Jesus as his king. Jesus is “King of Kings.” He bows to Jesus in humility. The second gift is frankincense, which is a type of incense. Incense is used by priests. The word priest comes from the Latin for bridge: “pontifex.” The Pope is the “Pontifex Maximus,” or “Highest Priest.” The priest bridges things of heaven and things of the earth. Jesus is here acknowledged as the priest. But of course, the last of those gifts is the most interesting: myrrh. Myrrh is nothing less than….embalming fluid! This was a terrible gift to offer Mary, but it foretold that Jesus was, from the very beginning, born to die. “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Even the original word in the gospel for the wood of the manger is the same word used for the wood of the cross. The shadow of the cross at Golgotha began at Bethlehem. Our astrologer kings show us that infant Jesus is king, priest and Savior. He is more than He appears to be.
Father Cameron writes of T. S. Eliot’s explanation of the kings from the East: “The kings lived a life packed with privilege: summer palaces, lounging on terraces, silken girls, sherbet served cool and sweet. Yet for all its delights, this for them was not enough. In fact, each pleasure indulged only increased the unignorable gnawing within…the craving for an Infinite Something to satisfy all longing.”
Pope Benedict XVI mirrors Eliot’s insight. Pope Benedict writes that the kings were “men with a restless heart, driven by a restless quest for God…. They were looking for something greater… They wanted to know how we succeed in being human.”
It was, of course, the great Saint Augustine who figured it out long before any of us when he taught us that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God alone.” Augustine, like the Kings from the East, traveled very far in pilgrimage to find God. They were relentless until they found Him and then when they finally did find God in the manger they were forever changed. No one who encounters God remains unchanged.
I have stood before their very bones, once owned by the Emperor Constantine, and now housed since 1164 in the golden reliquary behind the altar of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. They had traveled a very long distance and a very long time to find Jesus–just like you! They are emblematic of our life’s great journey to find God. The gospel ends by making an often-overlooked point. Once they had found Jesus-God, they went home….but “by another route.”
Once we have found Jesus we are never the same again, and we return back to our lives and to our homes…“by another route.” We are different; forever changed.
Perhaps the 20th century nun, martyr, and Jewish covert who died at Auschwitz said it best. Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) reminds us that the great Kings from the East “stand before the Incarnate Truth, bow down and worship, and place their crowns at God’s feet, because all the treasures of the world are but a little dust compared to Him.”
– Fr. Gerard Gordon