First Reading Isaiah 60:1–6
Psalm Psalm 72:1–2, 7–8, 10–11, 12–13
Second Reading Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6
Gospel Matthew 2:1–12
Gospel – Matthew 2:1–12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Hearing the Word
“Following the Light”
The word “Epiphany” comes from Greek, where this word means “to show oneself (appear)” or “to give light to”. Fittingly, the Christian feast which bears this name celebrates God’s decision to reveal himself and to draw the people to himself. The image which encapsulates this message is that of a shining star, which radiates the light that dispels darkness, and which guides travellers. In biblical terms, light represents both God’s self-revelation and the guidance offered to those who seek his presence. In today’s reading, this guiding light symbolized by the star inevitably leads to Bethlehem, where God chose to show himself in human form.
The words of the prophet Isaiah contained in the first reading offer a spectacular vision of the pilgrimage of the earth’s nations to Jerusalem. The prophet speaks to God’s holy city and its inhabitants, inviting them to “arise” and “to shine”, so that the nation enveloped by darkness and desolation might find a way to the light. This light that illuminates Jerusalem is none other than God himself, who, in the words of the prophet, “will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you”. This magnificent divine light will shine like a beacon unmistakably visible in the world’s darkness. It will shine not only for the inhabitants of Jerusalem but for all humanity. The prophet presents an imposing and panoramic picture of the pilgrimage of earth’s inhabitants to this place of salvation, to Jerusalem, stating, “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. The city, engulfed in the brightness of God’s presence, will become like a magnet, drawing all who search for life, light, and the knowledge of the one true God.
Isaiah lays emphasis on the journey that the peoples of the earth must undertake; they must “come to you” (Jerusalem) “from far away”. Once God’s presence become manifest, the inhabitants of the world enveloped in darkness must take a decision and make an effort to come to God and acknowledge him in worship. This prayerful worship is implied in the image of caravans from afar approaching God’s presence carrying “gold and frankincense”. These gifts are reserved for God as the supreme ruler (gold), and God as the divine being (frankincense). Those foreign pilgrims draw near to Jerusalem ready to acknowledge the supreme God as their king, and to “proclaim the praise of the Lord” who is their God.
The arrival of the nations to Jerusalem with their wealth, also signals the beginning of a new relationship among peoples on earth. The Israelites dwelling in Jerusalem will be joined by the rest of humanity, to become one people gathered together to the one God. Those foreigners and former outcasts are now symbolically adopted and called Jerusalem’s sons and daughters, as depicted through the prophets’ moving words: “your sons shall come from far away and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms”. Gathered to God, all peoples of the earth become a community of his people joined in worship and rejoicing, bathed in the all-enveloping light of the divine presence.
The second reading from the Letter to Ephesians speaks of the “mystery […] made known […] by revelation”. The author of the letter states that in “the former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind”, either because it was hidden or not properly understood. But that hidden reality “has now been revealed”. This “now” is the present time, when the divine mystery was made known through Jesus Christ – the true light of divine revelation (see Eph 5:14). The mystery in question involves God’s eternal plan regarding the inclusion of the “Gentiles” in the family of his own people. The author uses the language of inheritance to describe this inclusion in the words, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs” to God’s promises with the Israelites. This results in a new community as all are now “members of the same body”. Those who are “in Christ Jesus”, regardless of their ethnicity and nationality, now share in the same promise, which is the promise of salvation. God’s mysterious plan from of old was that all peoples might be joined to him and saved. Parallel with the vision of Isaiah, the author of Ephesians points to God’s plan of universal salvation. This plan came to its full fruition and became manifest in and through Jesus Christ.
The author of this letter favours describing Jesus as the light. He writes to his non-Jewish Christians: “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph 5:8-9). Joining Jesus in faith means coming to the light; it means knowing God and being counted among his people.
The journey of the three wise men “from the East” presented by the Gospel passage is one of following the light and, simultaneously, coming to the light. Ancient people believed that sudden appearance of a star announced the birth of a supremely important person, usually a king. Thus, the sages interpreted the new star as one announcing the birth of the “king of the Jews”, and rushed to look for him, expecting to pay homage to an earthly king. The heavenly light of the star guided them in this search. Arriving to their destination, perhaps informed by the words of the prophet Micah, they grasped the true identity of the child they found in Bethlehem. They manifested this knowledge by the offering of three symbolic gifts. They offered gold for the King, frankincense for God, and myrrh for a human being. The wise men found the true light of the world, Jesus the Messiah, and paid him fitting homage by prostrating themselves before both King and God. They were wise indeed as they looked beyond appearances and recognized this humble and seemingly ordinary child for who he truly was. Following the light of the star, they came to the light of knowledge and faith.
The Gospel story also shows an opposite reaction to the light, illustrated by king Herod. This man of power jealously protecting his position was frightened by the news about the newly born king. This fear plunged him into darkness as he quietly planned to murder the child. Yet another negative response to the light in seen in the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. These learned people knew where the Messiah was to be born. However, they did not act on that knowledge, and did nothing to approach the light. They were not ready to leave the space of their comfort. Consequently, Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes made a choice for staying away from the light and for clinging to the convenient darkness of unbelief and ignorance.
The readings for the Feast of Epiphany skilfully employ the image of the light to portray God’s salvific will and deeds. God desires to draw all people to himself, as he alone is the life-giving and guiding light. This divine light shone upon Jesus’ humanity. The prophet Isiah spoke of this light radiating from Jerusalem and drawing all nations to itself. The author of Ephesians reiterated Isaiah’s words that God’s salvation is offered to all peoples and specified that the light came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Those who join themselves to Jesus, through faith, become members of God’s all-inclusive family and become one with the light. The wise men followed the light of the star and came to the light of knowledge about Jesus and his purpose in the world. He came to rule, guide and save those willing and ready to make the journey towards the light. Such a journey is for those who long for true life and the ultimate knowledge, for those who long to live under God’s rule and readily pray with the Psalmist, “may God have dominion from sea to sea.”
Listening to the Word of God
The feast of Epiphany summons us to reflect on the theme of “following the light”. In many parts of Africa the first rains bring out swarms of flying termite larvae. Emerging from the darkness of their subterranean nests, these insects swarm around, apparently without any clear direction, disjoined and distant, except when there is light in their sight. If so, they all fly towards that single point where they continue their mating ritual in great numbers. We can learn from these insects that when we are able to recognize where the light is, we will find a sense of direction and purpose. We do not need to look far. Jesus declared that he is the light of the world (John 8:12) and has given us instruction on how to be the light ourselves.
First, Jesus drew the magi to himself because of who he was. As Christians, we are to be drawn to Christ and stay connected to him because we recognize his utmost importance. This constant connection with our light replenishes and recharges us to continue the journey of following him, despites trials and turns and twists in the road. Following the light poses a great challenge for us today, because we so often experience darkness and confusion. Yet Jesus and his teaching stand as a guiding light for us. So often we look to other people and sources for inspiration and guidance, forgetting that Jesus is, in fact, the best of these. Recognizing that he is our light will help us greatly to cling to him. But we need to make a conscious decision to seek guidance from him through prayer, reflection, and the sacraments.
Second, in their search for the newborn king, the three wise men were guided by the light of the star, but they were also helped by the words of the Scriptures cited to them. As the followers of Christ, we also have the star to follow. This star is the Bible which contains all we need to know to walk the path to salvation. In the Scriptures, we find the principles and teachings, which nourish and instruct us on who our God is and how we ought to live out our Christian faith. We need to reach for the Bible, read and study it, so that its light may illuminate us.
Third, the image of light implies the presence of darkness, but where there is light, darkness disappears. Following Christ, the light of the world, means walking in the light to produce good fruits. These are, according to St. Paul, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Gal 5:22). Through the practice of these virtues, we not only follow the light, but become the light ourselves. This is indeed a great dignity – through our faith we can become the light for others. There is a beautiful African proverb which states that “the fuel in the lamp consumes itself but lights others”. Jesus was like that oil in the lamp. Coming to earth and sacrificing himself for others, he burned as a bright light that ignited the world. That light still burns in us today. Like Jesus, we can also be the light for others. Most importantly, when we burn with the love for him and other people, we can be assured that our oil will never run out because it is constantly replenished by his grace. We receive this grace when we seek his presence and cling to him through our faith and prayer.
What is the light that I follow in my daily life? Is it Christ? If not, then what is?
What detracts and leads me away from Jesus? Looking at Herod and the Jewish leaders I will name those forces that prevent me from “going to Bethlehem”.
Response to God
In the course of this week, I will pay attention to any inspiration and guidance that comes to me from the Lord. Whenever I experience God’s light, I will make a prayer of thanksgiving for this grace.
Response to your World
I will reflect on the three wise men and their search for Jesus in order to determine what can be my guiding star towards him. I will follow it.
As a group, we shall organize Bible sharing on the text of today’s Gospel with the purpose of “searching for the star” – something that can focus our group activities on being the light within our larger community.
Lord Jesus Christ, we recognise you as our Lord and King, the true manifestation of the invisible God. We adore you and worship your glorious name. Inflame us with your unfading light. Help us always to shine as light wherever we are. May your light shine and overcome the darkness of our hearts. We ask this through our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. Amen.