No Three Kings!

7 January 2007. Feast of the Epiphany
Matthew 2, 1-12: The Magi

Today, people greet me with the traditional, “Happy Three Kings, Father!” Let me first say this for its shock value: THERE ARE NO THREE KINGS! Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus was born, there came to give him homage wise men from the East (Matthew 2, 1). Those who came to visit Jesus were called the magi (magus in Greek). Herodotus, a famous historian, wrote that the magus were from the Median tribe who were suppose to overthrow the Persian government, but their influence was curtailed by Cyrus the Great and his son. Media was then absorbed into the Persian Empire around 550 BC. Shunning all political activities, they became priests whose activities included funerary services. Later, they accepted the Zoroastrian religion, but keeping many of their former practices. They were to the Persians, what the Levites were to the Jews. In Persia, no sacrifice can be made without the presence of the magi.

The magi were good men who were known for their expertise in the natural sciences, philosophy and medicine. During their time, people were very much interested in astrology. They believed that they could foretell the future by reading the stars and the destiny of human beings were already determined by the star on which the person was born. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that these wise magi followed a star, commonly referred to as “The Star of Bethlehem”. Whether it was a star or an astronomical event such as the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn (7 BC) or a heliacal event (as translated from the Greek, anatole, “rising from the morning”) meaning a star above the horizon but hidden because of the brightness of the sun. In ancient astrology, the appearance of a ‘star’ means the birth of royalty. Thus it was not surprising that the wise men from the East, who paid particular attention to the stars, came to follow that bright star to Jerusalem (Matthew 2, 1) to pay homage to the future king.

During that time, there was a growing expectation of a king. Both historians, Seutonius in his book, Life of Vespasian, and Tacitus, in his book Histories, tell us that during those days an old belief was gaining popularity. They believed that a great king will be born in Judea, and he will be great, gaining universal empire. The scriptural basis of this belief is from the Masoretic text of the prophet Micah 5, 1-3, as quoted by the chief priests of Herod, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Matthew tells us that these wise men gave Jesus three highly symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is given to kings; frankincense is given to priests; and myrrh, an embalming oil, is given to the dying. These items became emblems of Jesus’ life: Jesus is King; Jesus is Priest; and Jesus’ death is our salvation. One can still hear its medieval significance in John Henry Hopkins’ song, “We, three Kings” composed around 1857. Thus the three wise men were indeed ‘wise’ because they have given the appropriate gifts to Jesus, and at the same time, was able to recognize the true identity of Jesus.

Thus, it is widely accepted that there is nothing in scripture that tells us that they were kings, and that they were only three people from the East who came to seek Jesus. And thus, the religious significance of this homage to Jesus shifts from the “three kings” to the epiphany: the wise men of the East were witnesses that God has indeed become one of us. Epiphany, when translated from Greek, means “the manifestation of God” as man, with a definite name (Jesus) --- ang pagpapakita ng Diyos sa atin bilang tao; may hugis, may pangalan (Hesus) at taong-tao (dyumi-dyingle, dumu-dumi, nagkaka-amoy-pawis tulad nating lahat.

As we celebrate the first Epiphany of Our Lord on the first Sunday after January 1st, let us reflect on our lives and see how God had manifested Himself to us. Be sure that we are able to concretely identify the event: what, when, where, who were the instruments of His presence, what were you feeling, etc. And when we are able to concretely see the times when we greatly experience these manifestations of God in our lives, then we ask ourselves too: What appropriate gift should I give to God?

Happy Epiphany to all!

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