The Epiphany of the Lord — Wise Men See in the Light of Christ, ‘the Light of the World’
SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s Gospel is illustrated in a 19th-century tapestry, “The Adoration of the Magi,”by English artist Edward Burne-Jones.
Once upon a time, the Epiphany was as important as Christmas. “Twelfth night,” or Jan. 6, was observed as solemnly as Christmas. It remains a holy day of obligation in the Code of Canon Law (but not in the United States). In America, the Solemnity has been transferred from Jan. 6 to a Sunday.
“Epiphany” means “manifestation” and that is why the Solemnity was so important in the Church. Jesus came to save all humanity, and the Magi are the first examples of that universal salvific mission. Jesus already reaches out beyond Israel to these three pagans.
The adoration of the Magi appears only in Matthew (2:1-12). Tradition had it that Matthew’s Gospel was written for Jewish Christians to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s expectations. That is why, for example, Matthew often relates debates with the Pharisees and Sadduccees, why he frequently peppers his text with references to the Old Testament (as is the case in today’s Gospel), and why he often leaves original Hebrew or Aramaic words in the text, with a translation next to them (e.g., “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” — Matthew 27:46).
Matthew’s citation of the Old Testament plays an ironical role in today’s Gospel. When the Magi arrive in Jerusalem, they logically ask in the capital about the “newborn king of the Jews” because they had seen “his star at its rising” (2:2).
The Gospel makes clear that both their query and the news they bore were unexpected and unwelcome. “King Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3). But, when challenged to address the Magi’s question, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem: they immediately identified that, according to God’s revealed word (Micah 5:2), the newborn king was to be born in Bethlehem.
That’s where Matthew sees an irony. Jerusalem has everything it needs, including God’s clear revelation, to welcome its king. Instead, it is “disturbed.” The Magi, pagans relying on something they saw different and meaningful in the natural world, are led by that observation to God.
Catholic theology teaches that people can have reach a “true and certain knowledge of the one personal God” (Denzinger 3875) by human reason. I used to tell my students that God is somewhat like a child: He leaves his fingerprints all over the place, and one only has to be attentive to see them.
Of course, people can try to explain those fingerprints away, producing all sorts of arguments or excuses to explain away what their eyes and minds tell them. The idea that our intricately ordered universe, from gene to supernova, from Big Bang to our day, is just the result of luck strains credulity. God’s signs in the world provide us with some fixed point to start looking for him, and you only need one fixed point and the will to get started to move from being lost to being found. (See here.)
Because the human person is affected by sin, his reason is darkened and so supernatural revelation greatly helps him. But, just as we heard on the First Sunday of Advent this year, “there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars” at the end of the world, there were signs at Jesus’ coming into the world that the pagan Magi saw, while Jerusalem — gifted with natural and supernatural revelation — didn’t. As Jesus repeatedly points out in the Gospels, there is no one more blind than he who won’t see.
While the Magi’s stopover in Jerusalem became the opportunity to unleash a plot against Jesus’ life, they themselves go to Bethlehem where they offer him symbolic gifts: gold, which belongs to kingship; incense, which belongs to divinity; and myrrh, which belongs to mortality.
I’ve always been fascinated by myrrh. Gold and incense seem at first to be noble gifts, but myrrh seems to be a bit off-putting, something that doesn’t seem to belong with the other two. Divinity and mortality, after all, seem opposites, and kingship is not usually celebrated by a reminder that the king will die (although, in the old ritual for coronation of a pope, the papal master of ceremonies carried a smoldering flax wick to remind the new pope that his 15 minutes of fame would be passing and, as St. John XXIII put it when a cardinal complimented him on the papal bed, “Yes, but I have to die in it”).
Let me offer a theory here: perhaps we associate myrrh with mortality because it was among the spices Nicodemus brought to prepare Jesus’ body after his death: see John 19:39. Myrrh was used in the preparation of bodies for burial, but it had other uses, too. Myrrh was a precious commodity in antiquity. The traders to whom Joseph’s brothers sold him were carrying myrrh (Genesis 37:25). Moses used myrrh for anointing priests (Exodus 30:23-25). In the Book of Esther, the woman who was presented on a particular night to King Ahasuerus was prepared by “purification” which included six months of oil of myrrh (Esther 2:12). So, apart from its association with mortality — which rightly accented the centrality of Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection as well as its foretelling the imminent Massacre of the Innocents — myrrh was also a fragrant, noble, and precious spice that was highly prized in the ancient world.
Finally, some thoughts on the Magi’s return trip. Made aware not to return to Herod, “they went back to their own country another way” (v. 12). T.S. Elliott, in his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” makes that remark into a major point, and rightly so. Any encounter with the living God should change us, as it changed the Magi. Any conversion should put us on a new path. In that sense, they could not go home by the same way, even if they could have traveled by the same route.
Today’s Gospel is illustrated in a tapestry, “The Adoration of the Magi,” by English artist Edward Burne-Jones and the Morris & Co. weavers, dating from 1890. The original was made over four years for the chapel of Exeter College at Oxford, where it still is. Nine others (with slight variations on the edges) were made for other institutions, which today include the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Burne-Jones belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. The Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, sought to recover some of the features of 14th century (Quattrocento) Italian art, which they believed had been harmed by the classicism and mannerism of Raphael (hence, the name) and Michelangelo. Given its fascination with the 14th century, the pre-Raphaelite movement had strong medieval and religious influences, although it was also affected by the 19th century’s Romanticism and interest in nature.
The late 19th century had witnessed a neo-Gothic revival in architecture. That revival was present not just Roman Catholic but also Anglican circles, given the Anglo-Catholic and Oxford Movements’ ascendancies in that period. Indeed, neo-Gothic influences extended beyond Church circles: consider the neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster, where the British Parliament sits and over which Big Ben towers. It dates from the 1820s.
Exeter College was building a neo-Gothic chapel at Oxford University and commissioned Burne-Jones to prepare the tapestry. Because stained glass windows were going to be prominent in the chapel, the artist agreed that colors had to be “harmonious and powerful,” to coordinate with the windows but not be overpowered by them.
The powerful reds on the first (St. Joseph), third, and fifth figures frame the picture, while Mary is unique in strong blue, while Jesus, the angel, and the middle Magus all wear white (with the Magus also flecked in a paler blue). Each of the Magi bears his gift, standing in the usual line which depicts reverence before a king. Reflecting the medieval tradition of making the Magi kings, each bears rather than wears his crown, indicative of his acknowledgement of the Child King. The crown of the first king is on the ground before him. In keeping with pre-Raphaelite patterns, the natural world is depicted in abundant flowers, particularly lilies (pointing to the purity of Mary and Joseph), while the “little town of Bethlehem” appears just above Mary’s head in an otherwise forested environment. The garment, face, and wings of the angel are all very typical of the pre-Raphaelite movement.
My choice of this work to illustration today’s Gospel was driven by two factors: first, to introduce the Pre-Raphaelite Movement’s contributions to sacred art; and second, because this work limits the event to the essential figures. In some depictions of this event, when the Magi become kings, they are followed by an entire retinue of courtiers, as one would expect of royalty. That always posed a problem to me, because how would a group of that size discreetly get away “by another route?” Somebody would have noticed the movement of a troupe of that proportion, especially with Herod’s network of informants and spies. Burne-Jones’ work symmetrically confines the event to its key characters: the three members of the Holy Family on the left, the three Magi on the right, the angel joining them together. He holds a star-like light, pointing to Jesus as “the light of the world,” (Luke 2:31-32) who comes to illumine all men (John 1:9).
[For those interested in the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington has one of the best American collections of that movement.]