Sunday, Jan. 8, is Epiphany Sunday. Mass readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
This Sunday’s readings share some startling facts. We think of the religious and political leaders in the time of the New Testament as people who didn’t know Jesus was coming, and so fought back when he came.
But, in fact, it seems that the Jewish leaders knew all about the Scripture passages that predicted him, down to the town of his birth — including King Herod.
It turns out it wasn’t faith they lacked: It was love and hope.
The Gospel tells us that the chief priests were assembled to answer the question: Where is the Christ to be born? “They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
The specificity of their answer is astounding. How is it that these men who know the Scriptures so well could predict Jesus’ coming so accurately, but then not go and seek him out when the signs of his coming appeared? St. Augustine says, they “read the Scripture unprofitably.” That’s putting it mildly.
Next comes King Herod. 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.” He also received specific information about the birth of Jesus — and believed — but only wanted to eliminate him as a threat to the power that he held so dear.
Thus the Jews’ faith in this story was an intellectual knowledge only. They believed with their heads, but not with their hearts. They had faith, but not love. Herod’s faith, in fact, was subservient to his own will to power. He had faith without hope: He believed and — with all his heart — feared that Jesus would diminish him.
Only the Magi responded properly, by going to adore Christ: “Entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
St. Gregory the Great explains the meaning of each gift of the Three Kings: Gold symbolizes wisdom, Frankincense symbolizes prayer, and myrrh symbolizes mortality.
We would do well to imitate their offerings.
We can offer Jesus the gold of our heads and hearts for wisdom — the gift of the Holy Spirit that allows us to “relish what is right,” to see and love the goods of God. We can offer him the frankincense of prayer — the lifting of our hearts to God and recalibrating our lives from his perspective. And we can offer him the myrrh of remembering our deaths — the great reminder that our lives are not our own and that we need our Savior.
Ultimately, that is the greatest lesson of the Christmas season: We need a Savior. And the greatest lesson of Epiphany is that we have all the tools we need to find him: Scripture, the Church and the signs of nature.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
He is the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.