by Father Mike Stubbs
Most parishes set up a Nativity set in the church at Christmastime. It does not merely form part of the holiday decorations. Rather, it serves as a shrine. Those visiting it can reflect upon the mystery of the incarnation and spend time in prayer to the Christ Child.
In doing that, they imitate the example of the Magi, whom we learn about in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 2:2-12, as we celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany.
The Gospel reading supplies only a few details about their visit to the Christ Child: that they are traveling from the east, that they have been following a star, that they offer the Christ Child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But Catholic imagination is not satisfied with such a meager description. Catholic tradition goes on to count the Magi as three in number, to correlate to the three gifts that they bring. Not only that, tradition even ascribes names to the Magi — Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior. Tradition even suggests that each of the Magi represents a different continent: Asia, Europe and Africa. Those three continents would constitute the whole known world at the time.
That is significant. Even though these imaginative speculations about the Magi go far beyond the Gospel account, they reflect an important point that the Gospel is making. It is the point of the solemnity of the Epiphany.
“Epiphany” means “manifestation” in Greek. The feast celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the whole world. He has come, not only for the Jewish people who have been waiting for the Messiah, but for everyone.
The Magi in the Gospel account, however many there may have been in number and whatever their nationality, are not Jewish. They represent the gentiles of the world. The star that they have been following represents the light of the Gospel message, a light that Christ will shine upon the world.
The Epiphany celebrates God’s outreach to the world through Jesus Christ. It encourages us to take part in that outreach.
Traditionally, missionaries receive the mission cross during Mass in Rome on the solemnity of the Epiphany. Through their ministry, they share in God’s outreach to the world. They may travel to foreign lands and exotic places to do that.
Unlike them, we may stay at home. At the same time, we also can take part in God’s outreach to the world. We can share our faith with those with whom we come into contact, with our friends and neighbors.
That does not mean a hard sell. It does mean that we let our faith shine. Then, once again, the star will lead people to worship the Christ Child as the Magi did.