Christ the King Catholic Church
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Three wise men, astrologers, come from far away and pay homage to Jesus. Tradition has given the names Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar to the magi who traveled to find Jesus. In the Gospel passage from Saint Matthew Jesus is revealed as the king not only of the children of Israel,' but of the Gentile world as well. Up until now, all of the people in the Christmas story have been Jewish. Today, in the Gospel, the Gentiles arrive in the persons of the wise men.
The whole infancy narrative in Matthew and Luke's Gospel is a catechism. The Gospel is contained in a seed in these first chapters of the Gospel. And each year at Christmas we make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to read and study this catechism.
This 'catechism' first of all tells us who Jesus is. Who is this child whose birth we celebrate with such joy and solemnity?
The gifts that the wise men are significant. They bring gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold is a gift for a king. In ancient times no one would approach a king with empty hands. And gold, the most precious of metals, was the most appropriate gift for a king. The wise men bring Jesus the gift of gold recognizing that the child born in a humble manger is the king of kings, destined to rule all people. Each year we end the liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King, the universal king.
And next to the gold is placed frankincense. Frankincense is a gift for a priest. In the Temple in Jerusalem priests offered sacrifices to God, day in and day out, on behalf of the people. They would incense the gifts with sweet smelling frankincense to make them more pleasing to God. Jesus is our priest. The priests in the Old Testament stood between God and people as a mediator. Jesus is the priest of the New Covenant. He is the one mediator between God and humankind. One of the ancient words for priest was 'pontifex' which means 'bridge-builder'.
Jesus is the bridge through whom we have access to God. The wise men bring Jesus the gift of frankincense recognizing him as our priest.
And next to the gold and the frankincense, they bring myrrh. Myrrh is an ointment made from a resin that was used in the ancient world to anoint the bodies of the dead. Early in the morning on the third day, the scriptures tell us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus and, of course, found the tomb empty. Mary was fulfilling the Jewish burial custom of anointing the body with myrrh. The wise men bring the gift of myrrh to the new-born Jesus as a sign that he was born to die. Jesus is our savior who came into the world to reconcile us to God through his sacrificial death on the cross.
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for one who was born to die. These were the gifts of the wise men and even at the cradle they reveal Jesus' identity as our king, our priest and our savior.
But Matthew does something more in his infancy narrative. He not only tells us who Jesus is, he also reveals in the very beginning of his Gospel the response that people throughout history will make to Jesus - the reaction that people will have to the gift that God has given us in Jesus.
King Herod, the priests and scribe and the Wise Men all react in different ways to Jesus.
King Herod hears the news of the birth of a newborn king and is threatened by this news and his reaction is one of hatred and hostility. He was afraid that this little child would one day interfere with his life and his place in the world. In his hostility to Jesus, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the male children in the area surrounding Bethlehem. Jesus was met with hatred and outright hostility by Herod.
The chief priests and the scribes react in a different way. They had been given the luxury of studying the scriptures and entrusted with the task of identifying the Messiah when he would come. They gave Herod the information that he asked for and then went back to their studies of scripture and their legal discussions on the ten commandments as if nothing significant had happened. They were completely indifferent to the news of Jesus' birth. It made no difference in their lives. Only
later in the Gospel, after Jesus threatened their role as teachers of the people would their indifference turn to hostility.
And then there are the magi, whom we call the 'wise men'. The birth of Jesus changed their lives completely. They gave up everything in order to search for him and, when they found him, they worshipped him and acknowledged him as their king, their priest and their savior.
Each year we celebrate Christmas. Each year we make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and we relive the events of that first Christmas. A child has been born to us. A light has come into our world. And each year we must decide what to do with the gift.
For some today, Jesus is met with hostility and hatred. Some still today prefer the darkness to the light.
Many, perhaps most today, receive the news of Jesus' birth with indifference. The Christmas holidays are a nice break from the regular routine of things, but not much more. Jesus will be put away with the rest of the Christmas decorations and stored in a basement somewhere and will have little influence on everyday lives.
But, for some, the news of Jesus' birth changes everything. As Saint John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel, for those who do accept him he gives power to become children of God.
A gift has been given. What we do with the gift is up to us. We pray that amid the hostility of some and the indifference of many in our world today that there may be wise men and women who seek him still.