The feast of Epiphany originated in the East, where it was primarily a commemoration of the Lord’s baptism. This was the first of his “epiphanies,” or manifestations. Further epiphanies, such as the miracle at Cana, came later.
When this festival spread to the West, it assimilated some of the associations of the Western Christmas and became primarily a commemoration of the visit of the Magi.
This interpretation of Epiphany, however, remained peculiar to the West. In turn, the visit of the Magi came to be regarded as a manifestation to the Gentiles, as in the collect of the Roman Missal and the Book of Common Prayer: “Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum gentibus stella duce revelasti, ... ” and in the choice of the epistle for the day from the letter to the Ephesians.
Later still, especially in Lutheranism, Epiphany became the day to emphasize the Church’s missionary work.
The current Lectionary shows an attempt to restore the primary emphasis to the revelation of God in Christ and to relate all those secondary features to this primary theme.
Reading I: Isaiah 60:1-6
In its original context, the first part of this reading hailed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40ff—the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. The light has now come and the glory of the Lord has been revealed.
The second part predicts the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem that will follow upon the rebuilding of the city.
This reading is doubly suited to Epiphany when given a christological interpretation.
First, the Incarnation replaces the return from Babylon as God’s great act of salvation. In the revelation of God in Christ, the light has indeed shone in the darkness, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon the world.
And as the Gentiles respond to that revelation, a response symbolically prefigured in the journey of the Magi, the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Zion is fulfilled.
This Old Testament passage has clearly colored the narrative of the Magi in Mt 2 (gold and frankincense!). It also continued to influence the development of popular legend by adding details from the Old Testament ignored by Matthew (kings and camels, for example).
This psalm was probably composed as a coronation hymn for a Davidic king.
Expressive of the genius of Hebrew monarchy at its best, and in marked contrast to the brutal tyrannies of many Oriental potentates, the hymn depicts the king as the source of justice and compassion for the poor.
In all fairness, however, it should be noted that a similar portrait of monarchy characterizes the Code of Hammurabi.
The exaggerated language of the third stanza, with its picture of kings coming from afar—in fact, all kings and nations coming to do homage to the Davidic king of Judah—is simply a poetic expression of Judah’s hope that under the new king it will become the top nation as it was in the reign of David.
The choice of this reading is intriguing (the old Roman Missal had Isaiah 60:1-6), for it is the same passage that Cranmer appointed for Epiphany; in the Book of Common Prayer, though in longer form (vv. 1-12).
The reading combines the same two themes found in the first reading: the revelation or epiphany of God in Christ (“the mystery ... made known to me by revelation”) and the participation of the Gentiles in the messianic salvation (“the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise”).
The letter to the Ephesians was written, whether by Paul himself or by one of his closest disciples and successors, at a time when the Apostle’s work was complete and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the church, for which he had striven throughout his apostolic career, was an accomplished fact.
Matthew, too, was a beneficiary of this achievement (even if his view of the Law is very different), and it is precisely because of Paul’s success that this evangelist can use the story of the Magi to symbolize the universality of the gospel.
Many different elements have gone into the shaping of this familiar story.
(1) There is the primitive Christian kerygma—of Jesus’ birth from Davidic descent, which would qualify him in Jewish eyes for messiahship. The kerygma is further expressed in the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David (a tradition about which, as we have already noted, Matthew and Luke agree).
(2) There is the tradition, also common to Matthew and Luke, that Jesus’ birth took place near the end of the reign of Herod the Great.
(3) There is a folk memory of Herod’s character and of his psychopathic fear of usurpation during the closing years of his reign.
(4) There is the widespread Hellenistic belief in the East as the source of wisdom.
(5) There is the motif of the star as symbol of the Messiah. It is surprising in this connection that Matthew makes no use of Num 24:17. This text played a prominent role at Qumran, and it must have shaped the Magi story before it reached Matthew.
(6) The same failure to cite obvious Old Testament texts applies to the mention of the presentation of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which, as we have seen, is based on our first reading and the responsorial psalm (Ps 72). Again we must suppose that these Old Testament passages influenced the formation of the story, and that Matthew for some reason did not see fit to quote the passages in question.
Only the formula quotation from Micah can be attributed to the evangelist with any degree of certainty, although it is unusual for such quotations to be placed on the lips of the dramatis personae.
The thought that the Magi were Gentiles, underscored at least as early as the Gregorian Sacramentary (see the collect of the day in the Roman Missal, quoted above), is not at all emphasized in the narrative itself, though it is certainly present in the Old Testament Scriptures that lie behind it.