Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which the Church commemorates the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi. While various Jews had already acknowledged Jesus to be the coming Messiah, the Magi were the first gentiles to do so. The idea of there being three kings is a bit of an assumption. The Bible never gives a number; it has been assumed that each wise man brought one gift each.
Many of us are familiar with the story of the Magi through the famous and wonderful hymn “We Three Kings.” Written by an Anglican cleric John Henry Hopkins, the hymn is not only lovely but full of rich theological meaning. Hopkins asserts through his hymn that each of the gifts of the wise men conveyed meaning about the identity of Our Lord. The gold, he says, was meant to show the veneration due a king. The frankincense, a staple of priest craft, was meant to show that Jesus is to be “our great high-priest” (Hebrews 4:14). The myrrh, an embalming fluid, quite inappropriate for a baby shower, foreshadowed that Jesus would be the true paschal lamb sacrificed for our sins (St. John 1:29). The hymn, in its climatic final verse, acclaims, “Glorious now, behold him arise, / God and King and Sacrifice.” For the complete text of the hymn, click here.
Most people, when asked to explain the significance of the gifts of the Magi, default, knowingly or otherwise, to the meaning suggested in this hymn. While this explanation is not at all inconsistent with Scripture, it is also not a necessarily scriptural idea. Saint Matthew never says, “This is what the gifts mean,” nor does any other passage of Scripture. There are all sorts of explanations regarding the meaning of the gifts. Saint Gregory the Great, sixth century bishop and pope of Rome, provided another explanation in his eighth homily from Forty Gospel Homilies.
In his homily, St. Gregory explains, “Solomon testifies that gold symbolizes wisdom when he says, ‘a pleasing treasure lies in the mouth of the wise.’” (Proverbs 21:20 LXX) He further asserts that the incense offered by the Magi represents prayers and explains this by quoting Psalm 141:2 where the Psalmist writes, “Let my prayers be set before you as incense.” St. Gregory finally explains that the myrrh, the embalming fluid, represents the “mortification of our bodies.” “Mortification” means, literally, putting to death. Now the saint is not talking about killing ourselves, but rather is referring to the same concept Saint Paul uses when he says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13) Mortification is “putting to death” our sinfulness by fasting, meditation, prayer and other spiritual disciplines. The Pope explains, “Myrrh brings about, as I have said, that dead bodies do not decompose. For a dead body to decompose is the same as for the human body of ours to become a slave to the decay of dissoluteness [sinfulness].”
So what? What difference does this make to anyone nowadays? Saint Gregory tells us that we, too, may offer Christ the same gifts that the Magi offered all those centuries ago. He culminates his message saying:
“We too offer gold to the newborn king if we shine in His sights with the brightness of the wisdom from on high. We too offer Him incense if we enkindle on the altar of our hearts the thoughts of our human minds by our holy pursuit of prayer, so as to give forth a sweet smell to God by our heavenly desire. And we offer Him myrrh if we mortify the vices of our bodies by our self-denial.”
Thus, if we delve into the Holy Scriptures and seek Holy Wisdom, if seek deeper communion with Almighty God through prayer, and if we seek to put to death the deeds of the flesh by fasting and prayer, then we offer Our Lord the same wonderful gifts as the Magi brought to the Holy Family all those years ago.
May wisdom, prayer, and spiritual discipline abound in your life this New Year and may the Light to the Gentiles shine through you this Epiphany-Tide.