‘Epiphany’ means ‘revelation’ or ‘sudden realisation’. In terms of the feast commemorating the adoration of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’) before the Christ Child, it refers to the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, personified here in the persons of the three Wise Men. Our Gospel account of this event comes from St Matthew, who tells us that on seeing the star rising, they wanted to pay homage to ‘the infant King of the Jews’ (Mt.2:2) and seek directions from King Herod, whose own intentions are murderous.
St Matthew then tells us –
“And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the Child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the Child with His Mother, Mary, and falling to their knees they did Him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Mt.2:11-12)
These gifts are prophetic.
While the feast of the Epiphany closes the Christmas season and ushers us back into ‘Ordinary Time’, the three gifts are not about the present, but about the future; they say something very powerful about what is to come. The situation described by St Matthew is interesting enough – three Wise Men from the East follow a mysterious star and come to pay homage to a new-born Child, Who they refer to as the ‘infant King of the Jews’ and they bear very expensive gifts.
Gold is the metal of kings, from which the crown is made. Frankincense is an expensive aromatic resin, used both in perfumes and in incense. Myrrh is another aromatic resin, used in medicine, as a drink, a primary component of Jewish holy incense and in burial rites. It comes from various small thorny trees. We will see myrrh again, later in the Gospels, when it is mixed with wine and offered to Jesus on the Cross.
And so, the gifts of the Wise Men are indeed prophetic. They say something of the kingship of Christ, of His role as Priest, and they give a foretaste of the Passion and death He will undergo.
As we move back into ‘ordinary time’ after the joy of Christmas, perhaps we – along with Mary – will keep the thoughts of these three gifts in our minds and ponder them and their meaning deeper.
Like those three Wise Men, may we have the wisdom to search for the Christ Child and the joy of finding Him, in the arms of His Mother.
Main Image: ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ – Edward Burne-Jones (1904)