HOMILY for the Epiphany
‘We Three Kings’ is such a popular carol, and so well-known that we’re probably quite accustomed to reading today’s Gospel through its lens. Firstly, that there were just three men from the East. Secondly, that these men were kings. But St Matthew’s gospel account only has one king - Herod. These men, he calls magoi, priestly astronomers from the Persian tribe of Medes, and appropriately enough, the word magoi means ‘bearers of the Gift’. But because there were three gifts in Luke’s gospel, we assume there were three men. St Matthew himself does not specify how many magoi came to Bethlehem. Neither does he give the gifts any symbolic meaning; most likely he just wants to invoke the prophecy of Isaiah read as our First Reading, to indicate that Jesus Christ is God’s saving embrace being extended to all peoples, to the Gentiles too and not just to Israel. Nevertheless, our carol interprets the gifts as symbolic: Gold for Christ’s kingship, incense for his divinity, and myrrh for use in his passion and death. In the words of the carol, they point to Christ as “King and God and Sacrifice”.
But I wonder if this interpretation has become too dominant, like the idea of there being Three Kings. Because if we look at the Gospel again, we’ll see that the Magi are said to open their “treasures” to Christ. Later in St Matthew’s Gospel, Christ says: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (6:21). So, in opening their treasures, the Magi may be said to open their hearts to Christ, offering him its secrets. And the Magi themselves, if we follow St Matthew’s reference to Isaiah, stand for us - the Gentile nations, the multitude of peoples, indeed, even humanity itself. Humanity, whose hearts are restlessly seeking God. For he has made us for himself, made us to long for Truth, Goodness, and Love, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.
So, today’s Gospel invites us to lay bare our hearts to Christ, to our God who is present among us in all humility and meekness as a Child. And what might our hearts hold within them? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh… Gold, which stands for wealth, but also for our hard work and our earnings. Also, all our strivings - not just for material survival, but also our striving for respect, dignity, reputation, power, influence… or maybe, just striving for worth, for self-esteem. Frankincense, which is typically burnt as a sign of love and honour for God, could stand for those things we value most; those whom we love and honour, that which brings us joy and perfumes our lives with gladness. And myrrh? This bitter resin, used to relieve pain or embalm the dead, stands for our sufferings and wounds, our griefs and pains, all the bitter things, the pains which the human hearts endures and harbours. All these we hold, locked up like treasure, in our hearts. And all these, like the magoi, we bring to the Christ Child. With the wisdom of the Wise Men, we open our treasures before him, and offer to God our gold, frankincense, and our myrrh, that is, our strivings, our joys, and our sorrows.