Meaning of Gifts of Magi

(Homily for Epiphany)

Message: The gifts of the Magi preview Matthew’s central message: with the coming of Jesus, human history has begun a new chapter.

Many of you have attended an opera or a symphony. You know that it usually begins with an overture which states the major themes. Today’s Gospel reading comprises part of an overture to the entire Gospel of St. Matthew. It presents themes which Matthew will develop in greater detail: Jesus as “shepherd of Israel” as well as light to distant nations. Its great theme is epiphany, that is, making visible an invisible reality. In this beautiful passage, the epiphany happens not by something Jesus does, but by something that is done for him. He receives three mysterious gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. What do they signify?

Before explaining the significance of the Magi’s gifts, I would like to refer to a humorous Christmas card I received. It imagined what would have happened if the Magi had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men. The card mentioned that they would have asked for direction along the way and would have arrived in time for the birth. Above all, they would have brought practical gifts! One could quibble that gold is quite practical, but frankincense and myrrh don’t seem to fit very well. The Fathers of the Church (those Christian writers in the early centuries) recognized that the gifts were not so much practical as symbolic. Scholars have discussed the symbolism at great length. For my money (what little I have) the second century writer, Irenaeus of Lyon, gave the most likely interpretation: the gifts signify Jesus’ kingship, his Godhead and his sacrificial death. It is no surprise that gold, the most precious of metals, symbolizes royalty. Frankincense, an aromatic substance brought from faraway Nubia, was burned before the Holy of Holies. It signifies Jesus’ divine nature. Myrrh, also brought from Africa, formed part of a preservative ointment. It represents Jesus’ sacrificial death.

The gifts of the Magi preview Matthew’s central message: with the coming of Jesus, human history has begun a new chapter. Jesus will fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. The gifts are referred to in the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms - as we heard in our readings today. But Jesus not only fulfills ancient dreams; he inaugurates a new era. Sometimes people have tried to conceive this new era as a program for moral reform, but that really misses the point. Jesus did not teach any particularly new morality. You can find his ethical teachings in the Old Testament, not to mention the great masters of Greece and Asia, as well as the peoples of Africa and the Americas.* The moral law is the common inheritance of humankind. It is written in our hearts. Jesus of course underscored various precepts such as seeking purity of heart and countering malevolence with good will, but he was not stating anything that unique. What is truly unique about Jesus is his person. The gifts bring out his singularity: He is God, the one who became man to save us by his sacrifice and who will rule over all. Something very new has entered our world. The person of Jesus transforms our melancholy history. He does it not by some political scheme, but one soul at a time. He invites your conversion and mine.

In Jesus two worlds collide: our natural world and the world we might call supernatural. “Supernatural” means above or beyond ordinary reality but not totally separate because it makes possible all that we see and experience. The collision of the two worlds does not bring total destruction, but rather a new order of being. The gifts of the Magi signify this new reality. I invite you to join the Magi in pondering who this Child is. And like them, worship Him.

As an aid to entering into this worship of Our Lord, we will now listen to the Proclamation of Date of Easter 2017:

Dear brothers and sisters:

The glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons, let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.

Let us recall the year's culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising, celebrated between the evening of the thirteenth of April and the evening of the sixteenth of April, Easter Sunday. Each Easter as on each Sunday, the Holy church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has forever conquered sin and death.

From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the first of March.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the twenty-eighth of May.

Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the fourth of June.

And this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the third of December.

Likewise, the pilgrim Church proclaims the Passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise forever and ever.



*As C.S. Lewis demonstrated, you can even find the moral law in Norse literature! (See his invaluable book The Abolition of Man where Lewis argues that to deny the existence of universal moral standards is to abolish humanity itself.) The Norse, like many other people, mixed the precepts of the moral law with things that we would find repugnant today. Our fallen human nature means that no society, including our own, will have a pure version of that fundamental code. Yet we do not cease to testify to its existence. Even people who think they have outgrown conventional morality still say things like: "That's not fair! I was here first." or "But you promised!" or "How could he do something like that? It is just plain wrong." or "To think, I trusted him." or "What a two-faced phony she is!" or "He got what he deserved." In saying these things, they are doing more than simply sharing information; they are appealing to a moral standard which they believe everyone, deep down, accepts. And they are correct.


Spanish Version

From Archives (Epiphany Sunday)

2015: New Beginning: Lift up Your Eyes
2015: Two Uses of Science
2014: The Big Story
2013: Price of Liberation
2012: Where the Sun Is
2011: Science and God
2010: Three Types of People
2009: A Glimpse of the Mystery
2008: Where the Sun Is
2006: When Worlds Collide
2005: A Powerful River
2004: The Last Man
2003: The Materialist and the Magicians
2002: Astrology and the Christ Child
2001: Together with His Mother

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Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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