The Epiphany of the Lord
Many decades ago as we were growing up, January 6 was celebrated by the Christian world as the Feast of the Three Kings. The event being celebrated was the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar in Bethlehem to offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newly-born child whom they came to worship.
Today, liturgically this is known as the Feast of the Epiphany (referred to as Theophany for Eastern Christians). Epiphany means the manifestation of a divine or supernatural being and for us Christians this feast celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus. Instead of referring to the three visitors as Kings, they are now more popularly known as Magi or Wise Men. Across the world the celebration can range from January 6 to whatever is the Sunday nearest this date. Thus in our country, it would be celebrated on January 8.
Except for Matthew (Mt 2: 1-23), the narrative involving the three Magi does not appear in the accounts of the three other Evangelists. It is a very brief account where the tyrant ruler Herod is also mentioned. There are very few details that help us know the wise men better except that they were from the East and that their journey to Bethlehem was guided by a star. Otherwise, the narrative ends up as a mythical story shrouded in mystery thus leading to all kinds of conjectures.
Consequently, many have deconstructed the text and provided a deeper meaning to this narrative. Just this year on the Feast of Epiphany (celebrated at the Vatican with Cardinal Luis Tagle presiding and Pope Francis giving the homily), the Pope provided us his own reflection of the meaning of the Epiphany. Thus, his words:
“The Magi’s restless questioning and continuous journeying in dialogue with the Lord finds its end in the worship of God… Like the Magi, let us fall down and entrust ourselves to God in the wonder of worship. Let us worship God, not ourselves; let us worship God and not the false idols that seduce by the allure of prestige and power… let us love God and not bow down before passing things and evil thoughts, seductive yet hollow and empty.
The purpose of everything is not to achieve a personal goal or to receive glory for ourselves, but to encounter God. To let ourselves be enveloped by his love, which is the basis of our hope, which sets us free from evil, opens our hearts to love others, and makes us people capable of building a more just and fraternal world.”
We can further reflect on how this narrative relates to our contemporary life in our own society and focus our reflection on who were these wise men? The biblical reference indicates they were from the East, which should make it interesting for us Filipinos as we are in this part of the world – the East or the Orient. Some writers theorized that they came from the nearby countries of Israel, namely Persia (now Iran) even as far as India.
But why were they referred to as wise men? Relying on ethnographic data providing us data on the Oriental civilizations existing long before the West entered into its Industrial Revolution, there were advanced societies already existing in the Orient from China to India to the Arab countries. They had developed the various fields of philosophy and science, much earlier than the Western world.
Thus, we can conjecture that Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar – as they were guided by the star – had knowledge of astronomy if science had developed to that extent during that era. There is, however, one better explanation that anthropologists would posit. Could they be shamans who had developed the gift of communing with the supernatural?
If they were coming from the East, what faith traditions have evolved in their societies? While there were established religions already during the reign of Herod in other parts of the world and in Israel (Hinduism, Judaism, etc.), Islam and Christianity were still to evolve. But were the magi also shamans who served as ritual officiants of their communities which were ensconced within an indigenous belief system? We know for a fact that across the world and through the centuries, shamans have developed a keen sense of understanding the mystical realm. Could this have been the case of the three wise men?
Perhaps it is futile to have the answer to this question even if there theologians who would like to pursue this question in dialogue with anthropologists. However, we can expand the search of meaning and link it with our attempts to better pursue some of the pastoral challenges in our post-Vatican II Church especially in the discourses of inter-faith dialogue and inculturation.
A fundamentalist reading of the Matthew text would insinuate that as the magi worshipped the child as God, they had abandoned whatever faith tradition they belong and embraced a new faith. On the other hand, a progressive reading of the text allows for an encounter of faith traditions in dialogue with each other. Thus the Matthew narrative would be very useful for advocates of inter-faith dialogue, as one of the first events in Jesus’ early life pointed to the possibility of faith traditions entering into a dialogue with each other.
In this day and age, when there are still countries where different groups of believers – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and others – are engaged in conflicts leading to the eruption of violence, the encounter of Jesus and the Magi provide the hope that a day will come when all faith traditions would learn to embrace the gift of an encounter that brings peace!
When that moment arises, all of earth’s people of goodwill can truly celebrate all together a feast of the Epiphany no matter what faith tradition they worship God (in whatever God’s name is invoked!).