In this beautiful homily for the Feast of the Epiphany, Year C, Father Hanly shows how we can feel very close to the magi, because their route is our route: in our hearts we follow a star; we, too, hunger for what they hungered for.
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Recording of Homily
Apologies. Due to problems with the recorder, the beginning of this homily is missing.
Transcript of Homily
(Apologies. Due to problems with the recorder, the beginning of this homily is missing.)
The tribe of Israel will be those who, through the many centuries and through much pain and difficulty, kept alive the promise of the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Christos.
And yet when the three kings come, the whole non-Christian world rejoices because then we realise that this little Jewish boy is really the Son of God and the Son of God is for everyone.
So the first thing we should think of on this day, this very special day of the Epiphany, is the epiphany, the revelation, the revealing, that the child of Bethlehem is the Son of God and the Saviour of the whole world. And he is for all of us and for everyone, so that what brings the world together is really the little Jewish boy, who also happens to be the Son of God.
And it is this that our future is entwined that someday all the nations of the world will follow the Magi and follow the star and come to know and to understand that the child of Bethlehem is God Himself, calling His people, not just one tribe or nation, all men who have been created from the beginning of time until the end of time will be the children of God, and there’ll be no, as St Paul reminds us, difference between Jew and Gentile, between races and colours and different ways of understanding, for the child will unite us all into one family.
I often use the term that is very Confucian, and the ancient promise of the Chinese literature was that under heaven it would be one family eventually (Father says the words in Chinese) and, of course, this is what we celebrate today in the Feast of the Epiphany: under God, one family.
What does that do? Well it makes us all brothers and sisters. If we would learn to act and see each other as brothers and sisters, we would not be far from the peace and the joy of God for all peoples.
Now, who are these three kings? Well, there are many, many stories about the three kings, and many, many interpretations, and we know, first of all, they were not kings. The idea of kings came much later.
They were the magi, the magus. These were a group of people who were considered, in the courts of that area and at that time, very high. And while not kings, they were the favourites of the king, because they were the astrologers and they were the ones who plotted the heavens, and they brought their wisdom and intelligence and understanding through the study of the stars.
And it is through them that we get the idea of magician, which is magus. For us a magician does very secret and incredible things and works little miracles. And they also had the reputation, because they studied the stars and believed in the stars and felt that God was reaching them through the way the stars were set in the skies and their motions and movements.
And so these three looked up into the starry sky one day and they saw a very special star. And they looked through all of their writings and their histories and they found out that this was a star, perhaps, that would be the star that would shine on the birth of a Messiah in Israel. And that is where they set out. A long journey.
Where did they come from? Probably Babylonia, because in Babylonia the astrologers were considered the most important members of the regal family, close to the king.
And so they came. And, of course, Matthew, who tells us this story, is telling us how the journey is.
First you must search, you see. You must search in your heart. You must look up into the sky, look into your world or look into your heart. And if you’re not searching, you’re not going to find the child, because he’s only given to those who search, just as the magi were.
And so they came.
And they came and where did they look? Well, of course, those people knew much more about the nation of Israel than we give them credit for, for they knew that there was a promise in ancient days that some time in Israel a great king would arise and he would be called the Holy One of God and he would be the Messiah.
And so it was that they went to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem they encountered Herod.
Now Herod was a great king, a mighty king, and he was also a bit crazy. And he was ruthless when it came to holding on to his power. He even killed members of his family. And anyone who heard the name Herod trembled, even though he was one of the greatest builders of his time and many of the buildings of Caesarea in Palestine today were built by Herod, for this man was ruthless when it came, and he was paranoid when it came, to guarding his own power.
And so he called the people that would know about messiahs, certainly not Herod, but the people who did know were the scholars. And the scholars went through all of the scriptures. And it was noted in the book of Micah, the great prophet, seven hundred years before, that, someday, in Bethlehem, the city of David, where David himself was born and raised, there would come the great Messiah.
And so it was that the three kings, the three magi, were told that it is in this little village that was famous for only one thing, that it was the home of David himself, the King, that they would bring forth from the line of David, the Messiah.
And so they set out for Bethlehem.
Now in Bethlehem at the time, it was probably some weeks after the birth of Jesus because there is no mention of the manger any more, they’d probably been taken into a house, and it was Joseph’s assumption that they were to live, actually move there and live, in Bethlehem, because it was the place where the Messiah himself was born.
Along the way, or before they started out, Herod said to the kings, “You find out where he is and then you come back and tell us when you find him and we will go and worship him.” Of course, Herod had not worship in his mind, but he was going to destroy the child.
And so, when they finally found Bethlehem, and the star re-appeared above Bethlehem and they found the child and his mother, they found Jesus and Mary together, it was at that time that they offered their gifts.
There was gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold was the gift of kings.
Frankincense, as you know, if you’ve ever been down in a temple in Hong Kong, incense is for gods. You burn incense only to the divine. And their understanding also was the frankincense, the incense, would be the recognition that the child was divine, that he had come from God.
And the myrrh, which was a puzzling gift because myrrh is an ointment used only in embalming, and it was to embalm the child.
And that meant that the meaning of the gifts was this king of the Jews, who was God incarnate, he would also, because he was mortal, he would pass through death into his new kingdom.
And then Joseph had another dream. Joseph was a dreamer like the one before him. Joseph dreamt and an angel appeared and said, “Now you must take the child and go quickly and go into Egypt, because his enemies are after him to destroy him.
And so they said goodbye to the magi, and the magi went back by a different route, and Joseph took the mother and the child, and made the long journey into Egypt and safety where they remained.
This story has many, many applications, I think, for all of us. But the first one that Matthew wants us to remember is, if you’re searching, if you’re searching for meaning, for purpose, for what will eventually feed the hunger of your heart, you will come and you will find that Jesus is the answer.
And you will find him when you read the scriptures, because these are the people of the Messiah. And all the scriptures that are written were written in one way or another pointed to him and what would happen.
And the hope of Israel would be peace. And the hope of Israel was not just peace among the Israelis, but it would be peace to the whole world. And this is what the hope of the child was. And this is why he fled into Egypt to protect not only the hope of the Israelites, but the hope of the whole world.
And so it is today we come here to celebrate a feast day. And we feel very close to the magi. Why? Because their route is our route. In our hearts we follow a star. We, too, hunger for what they hungered for, was peace not only for themselves, but peace for the whole world and for mankind.
And the journey would be long, and the journey would demand great faith, but the journey would end in finding the child and his mother.
And that, of course, is what you find whenever you enter this church, the child and his mother.
And we will begin mass and we ourselves will come as the magi did and offer our gifts. Gold, yes. The most precious thing in our lifetime is our very own lives and this is the gift we offer. We pray like incense rising to heaven in gratitude for God for sending us a saviour. And, of course, the last one is the hardest, we give our life to him and walk with him as he grows up, as he teaches, as he is condemned, as he dies on the cross and gives his life to his Father.
He takes us on that journey and this is why this special feast day is so important for all of us. Because we have found the object of our searching for the star in Jesus.
We offer him homage, we accept him as our Lord and our Saviour, and he teaches us that we, too, must walk the walk and not just talk the talk. But we walk by giving and caring and reaching out to people to the very end of our lives. And we, too, must walk up the hill of Calvary. And we must hear God’s voice at the very end, welcoming us, good and faithful servants of Jesus.
So let us celebrate today the Feast of the Epiphany. It seems so many, many, many, many thousands and thousands of years. But it wasn’t. It was a very short time and we are here to keep it fresh and to keep it new.
And as we pray, we pray with all the peoples of the world. Number one, that one day under heaven all men will recognise that we are brothers and sisters. But, number two, that the only meaning for life is the life that our saviour Jesus has taught us: to love God and to learn to love each other.
And, finally, that indeed, the world is full of purpose and meaning. For all its setbacks, for all its wars and rumours of wars, for all its disappointments, it is the one great hope as we move towards eternal life: one family under God.
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This homily was delivered on 3rd January 2010.
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