Christians throughout the world recently celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, some on the traditional date of Jan. 6 (the “Twelfth Night” of the twelve days of Christmas) and others on the nearest Sunday (this year, Jan. 7). In many cultures, Epiphany is a little Christmas. Just as Dec. 25 commemorates Jesus Christ’s manifestation to his own people, the Jews, so Epiphany commemorates his manifestation to the gentiles, in the person of the wise men whose arrival is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
The wise men or magi, sometimes called “kings” in reference to Old Testament prophecies of kings of the East visiting the Messiah, followed a star which led them to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus lay. They had some knowledge of astronomy, enough to know that the star was unusual; and the astrology to which the ancients gave credit led them to believe that this astronomical phenomenon heralded the birth of a new king of the Jews.
Still, they must have felt there was something more to the strange light than that. After all, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (as tradition names them) were not Jews themselves, and the Jewish people were not prominent in world affairs. Why did the magi care about the birth of a new king in a minor foreign nation? The star boded something more, suggested some ramifications personal to them, or larger than what they admitted to Herod.
Perhaps one indication of what they expected, or at least what they found, lies in the gospel for the earlier epiphany.
The Gospel for Christmas Mass during the Day does not come from the infancy narratives, but from John: “In the beginning was the Word …” As John continues, clarifying the relation between the Messiah and God as one of identity, he adds the following:
“All things came to be through [the Word], and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” —from the USCCB readings for the Mass for Christmas Day.
John explains the Word’s creative role in terms of two fundamental things: life, and light. Unfortunately, this is one of the many places where translation confuses. The USCCB translation says that “What came to be through him was life,” but the Douay-Rheims has the more familiar “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This is a straightforward translation of the Vulgate, which reads “In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum.”
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