It’s two days after Latin-Rite Catholics celebrated Epiphany Sunday, and two days before Eastern-Rite Catholics celebrate Epiphany (they celebrate it on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, while we move the feast to Sunday), so it seems fitting to have a post celebrating it right here in the middle.
The Epiphany celebrates the Magi’s arrival, coming to see the Christ Child. I find it interesting that it’s Luke that focuses in his Nativity on the visit of the Jewish shepherds, while St. Matthew (who’s classically said to have been writing to a Jewish audience) focuses on the visit of the Gentile Magi. Both of these visits are related to the prophesy from Isaiah 60:1-6,
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; But upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: Your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses. Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, For the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
From St. Luke’s choice of words in Luke 2:9 (“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”), it’s clear that he sees this prophesy fulfilled in the Nativity. As darkness covered the earth, in a stable in the dead of winter, when Israel languished under Roman oppression, the Light of the Lord glowed for all to see. This Light was Christ Himself, as St. John testifies in John 1:9 and Christ says of Himself in John 8:12. But it’s also symbolized in the Glory of the Lord radiating from the angels appearing to the shepherds, and from the glow of the star that the Magi followed.
Matthew couldn’t have missed this Isaiah 60 parallel, either, and he notes that the Magi (“from the East,” the direction of Sheba) journeyed to see the Christ Child, and says in Matthew 2:10-11:
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It’s beautiful, but it ends ominously. From v. 12: “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” In fact, immediately after this (Matthew 2:13-16), the Holy Family flees to Egypt, while Herod massacres the baby boys of Bethlehem, and the surrounding area in order to prevent the rise of a King.
But amazingly, that may not be the most ominous part of this story. Instead, go back and compare Isaiah 60:6 with Matthew 2:11. Isaiah says that they’ll be bringing gold and frankincense: gold, the gift you offer a King, and frankincense, the incense you offer to God. Properly understood, Isaiah’s telling us the crux of the New Testament. A God-King will enter the world, and be worshiped by Jews and Gentiles alike. The Magi are the first fulfillment of this, as they (quite literally) walk by faith to come and worship Jesus. But look at the third gift which Matthew mentions: myrrh. It’s used for embalming (and in fact, Nicodemus uses it to embalm Jesus, in John 19:39). It’s a shocking gift, like giving a baby a specially-engraved tombstone. And immediately we see the shocking twist of the New Testament: the prophesied God-King is coming, but He’s not coming to rule over an earthly Kingdom. He’s coming to Die.
Immediately, the joy of the Nativity starts to give way to the sorrow of the Passion of Christ. But the sorrow of the Cross quickly gives way to the Glory of Easter. And in the light of Easter, it becomes clear that even the Cross is a Victory over the forces of evil (Colossians 2:15). The Church never loses sight of these truths, and burns frankincense at the Easter Vigil as incense to Our Risen Christ, combining in that fragrant smell the gift of the Magi, His burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and His Eternal Victory.