The word epiphany means ‘manifestation’, and the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is a celebration of the first two occasions on which it became evident that Jesus was not just an ordinary man, but that He was the Son of God. The first time that this was revealed was when the wise men (magi) from the East came to worship Jesus; the second occasion is the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. While Eastern Orthodox churches focus on the Baptism of Jesus on this feast day, in the Roman Catholic rite, Epiphany is the day on which we commemorate the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East.
The arrival of the magi to pay homage to the king of the Jews is a significant event. It signified that Gentiles as well as Jews could welcome the good news of Salvation that was made manifest in the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. We learn from the magi that if we choose to seek Christ in all sincerity, we too will find Him – not through our own efforts, but through our willingness to follow the light of His life and teaching. Following their example, we are inspired to worship Him. Like them, we do not want to come empty-handed, but want to bring gifts to our Lord that will show Him how much we love and honour Him.
Tradition has drawn different associations with the gifts that the wise men brought to Jesus. Gold is a sign of wealth and was regarded as a symbol of kingship; frankincense1 is a type of incense that symbolized divinity and was also associated with prayer, as it was burned alongside the grain offerings in the Tabernacle as a fragrant offering rising to God.2 Myrrh is an aromatic resin that was one of the ingredients of the holy oil used for anointing priests, prophets, and kings, and it was also used to embalm the dead (thus symbolically foreshadowing the death of Jesus). But what about us? What gifts can we bring to our Lord and King?
In truth, we have nothing to give Jesus that is not already His; everything that we have and are is a gift from God. We have nothing to offer Him other than ourselves; we have nothing to bring Him other than our love and worship. Yet these are the gifts that He desires the most, the gifts that are truly fit for the King who gives Himself completely to us so that we can be united with Him forever in eternity. Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
– Sharon van der Sloot
“If the Magi had come in search of an earthly King, they would have been disconcerted at finding that they had taken the trouble to come such a long way for nothing. Consequently they would have neither adored nor offered gifts. But since they sought a heavenly King, though they found in Him no signs of royal pre-eminence, yet, content with the testimony of the star alone, they adored: for they saw a man, and they acknowledged a God.” ~St. John Chrysostom
1Frankincense was one of the ingredients of the perfume in the Jewish sanctuary (Ex 30:34) and was burned along with the grain (also called the cereal offering) on the altar in the Tabernacle (Lev 6:15).
2Myrrh is a resin used to make fragrant oil and incense. The Jewish Oral Law also lists myrrh as one of the 11 ingredients of Ketoret, the consecrated incense that was burnt on the gold altar of the Jewish tabernacle twice each day. As a means of purification, we read in Scripture that Queen Esther bathed in myrrh for six months before being presented to King Ahasuerus (Esther 2:12). Myrrh was one of the gifts of the magi at Jesus’ birth, and also figures in His death. Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint the body of Jesus after He was taken down from the Cross for burial (Jn 19:39). Today, Catholics mix myrrh with frankincense (as well as other ingredients) for use as sacramental incense during the celebration of the Mass. It is used to purify the objects that are enveloped in the smoke and symbolizes the prayers of the Catholic faithful rising up to heaven.