“Epiphany of the Lord”
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Because of the supportive and positive feedback I received concerning my success of explaining the Advent and Christmas symbols used in the Catholic Church, I decided to address occasionally other symbols used throughout the Church year. Today I will discuss the Liturgical colors of vestments.
The Church’s liturgical norms do prescribe specific vestment colors for various celebrations. The purpose of utilizing different colors for vestments is twofold: first, the colors highlight the particular liturgical season and the faithfull’s journey through these seasons. Second, the colors punctuate the liturgical season by highlighting a particular event or particular mystery of faith. The following explanation is based on the norms of “The General Instruction on the Roman Missal”.
White or gold, a color symbolizing rejoicing and purity of soul, is worn during the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Easter. White vestments are also used for certain other feasts throughout the year. White may also be used for Masses of Christian Burial and Masses for the Dead to signify the Resurrection of our Lord, when He triumphed over sin and death, sorrow and darkness.
Red has a dual imagery: symbolizing the shedding of blood and is therefore used on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, any other commemoration of the Lord’s passion, the votive Mass of the Precious Blood, the days marking the martyrdom of the apostles (except St. John), and the feasts of other martyrs who offered their lives for the faith.
On the other hand, red also signifies the burning fire of God’s love. Red vestments are won on Pentecost; for the Sacrament of Confirmation; and for the votive Masses of the Holy Spirit.
Green is used during the liturgical season called Ordinary Time. We focus on the life Jesus shared with mankind during His time on this earth, the life we share now with Him in the community of the Church and through His sacraments, looking forward to sharing an everlasting life with Him perfectly in Heaven. Green symbolizes this hope and life, just as the hint of green on trees in early spring arouses the hope of new life.
Violet or purple is used during Advent and Lent as a sign of penance, sacrifice and preparation. At the midpoint of both of these seasons—Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent) and Laetare Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent—rose vestments are traditionally worn as a sign of joy: we rejoice at the midpoint because we are half-way through the preparation and anticipate the coming joy of Christmas or Easter. Purple vestments may also be used for Masses of Christian Burial or Masses for the Dead.
Although not seen very frequently in the United States today, black vestments may be worn for Masses of Christian Burial as a sign of death and mourning. Black may also be used on the Feast of All Souls or for any Mass of the Dead, such as on the anniversary of the death of a loved one.
In all, the colors of the vestments awaken us to the sense of sacred time. They are another visible way to make present the sacred mysteries we celebrate.
“Kings may be judges of the earth, but wise men are the judges of kings.” ~ Solomon Ibn Gabirol
Today’s reflection: The “Magi” seek out Jesus and do him homage. When have YOU last sought out Jesus, giving Him homage as these “Wise Men”?
(NAB Matthew 2:1-12) 1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” 9 After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
“Mary [Jesus’ mother] leads us to Christ, but Christ leads us back to His mother, for without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us. The Lord wills to ‘let His face shine upon’ us through the face of the Mother of God. We ‘serve a Mother who seems to grow more beautiful as new generations rise up and call her blessed.’” (G.K. Chesterton)
The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” Historically several moments in Jesus Christ’s early life and earthly ministry have been celebrated as “epiphanies,” as “manifestations” of the divine of this newborn, beginning with His birth in Bethlehem, in the visit of the Magi, in His baptism by His cousin, John – the Baptist, and in His first miracle at the Cana wedding feast.
(1)In Luke’s Gospel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, includes the Census required for Jesus to be “registered” in their father’s hometown (will say more about this later).
(2) Matthew’s Gospel today focuses on the strange event of “learned” non-Jews, the “Magi”, seeking to visit the prophesied “new king” to be born of Jews, “Israel”.
In retrospect, this text and its story anticipates the future of this “king” on one hand, AND, His acceptance by the non-Jewish “Gentiles” on the other. We have here a veiled image of the future Church composed of non-Jewish believers, and Jewish believers – – a new “Israel” of faith and worship.
So, let’s take a deep breath and relax – – and consider this: If Jesus is truly “who” He claims to be – – “the eternal ‘Son’ of God the Father, the prophesied “Anointed One” (Messiah), and the ‘Savior’ of the world’” – – then why was He not recognized by everyone who heard His “Word” and saw His works? Well, John the Evangelist states in his Gospel that when Jesus came into the world:
“The world knew Him not and His own people received Him not” (John 1:10-11).
Hmm, my faith has grown to realize that there is NO neutral stance when it comes to Jesus Christ, during His lifetime, and still today. Once people hear and see who Jesus claims to be, and what the implications of His coming are for them, they either accept or reject Him outright.
Jesus was born in unassuming obscurity. Only a few lowly Jewish shepherds were graced to recognize this Jewish infant boy (Jesus) – – as “King” – – at His birth in a lowly place and fashion; however, some “Magi” also found their way, over a short period of time, to Bethlehem, in order to pay “homage” to the newborn “King of Israel”. These men were not Israelites, but were instead “outside” foreigners. Nevertheless, they were likely well-versed in the many “Messianic prophecies”, and were anxious to see the true “great” Messianic King when He appeared as prophesied and promised.
What are “Magi” anyway? Well, “Magi” was a designation originally used for a Persian priestly order. However, over a period of time, the word became used more so for anyone regarded as having a “more than human knowledge”. For this reason, the term frequently used for them is: “Wise Men”. We also get our word “magic” from this specific word. Matthew’s “Magi”, from the “east” (probably around the area of Babylon in present day Iraq), were most likely astronomers and/or astrologers, as they obviously saw things in the heavenly skies that others quite apparently and easily overlooked when viewing the VERY SAME stars and constellations.
We know little about the “Magi”. We know they came “from the east” and journeyed to Bethlehem, via “Jerusalem”, following a “heavenly” astrological sign (the “star”) which, in itself, was of some type of “divine importance” to them. God the Father led them across the vast desert, by means of an extraordinary celestial “happening”, to the little town of Bethlehem, wherein, Jesus was born in a lowly manger. (Can you hear the song “Oh, little town of Bethlehem” in your head.) The “Magi’s” journey had to be a difficult one indeed. Roads were poor, no road signs in the desert, Inns (CamolTels) were not the best – – even for the camels. And let’s not forget the thieves and the lack of police intervention. All they had was a “star”- – but the best “star” in the heavens.
In their diligent search, these “three” Kings were led to the source of true knowledge – – to Jesus Christ Himself, the “Light and Wisdom” of God the Father. When they found the newborn child Jesus, they humbly worshiped Him, and gave Him “gifts” fitting for a “true King”, even for a “divine king”.
What fueled the Magi’s search for this specific – – and uniquely special – – “Messianic King”? I would like to think it was a confident and assured faith in the promise God gave to the Jews, to them and their people – – and to us. The prophetic promise was to send a Redeemer – – a “King” – – who would establish God’s reign of peace and righteousness for all peoples:
“Days are coming when I will raise up a righteous branch for David; as king He shall reign and govern wisely, He shall do what is just and right in the land. In His days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security. This is the name to be given Him: ‘The LORD our justice.’” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
My question to you: “Was it Matthew’s intention to use these men of ‘strange lands’ to represent the Gentiles’ search for a Messianic Savior?” I believe so. In essence, the “Magi” could easily and correctly represent the rest of the world, as a whole. As such, they are truly representative of OUR search for Jesus in our own lives and journeys today.
Also, there are a couple of Old Testament verses inferring that the “Magi” were truly “kings” themselves:
“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. Long may he live, receiving gold from Arabia, prayed for without cease, blessed day by day” (Psalm 72:10, 15).
“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” (Isaiah 60:6).
“Tarshish and the islands”, in the above verse from Psalm 72, refer to the far western part of the “known world”, and Arabia and Seba [Sheba] in the far southern portion. These Magi “from far away” foreign lands, – – yet still possessing advanced knowledge of Jewish faith, practices, traditions, and writings, – – “saw His star”.
What did Matthew mean by saying “saw HIS star”? Well, it was a common belief among nearly all in the ancient Middle East that a “new star” would appear at the time of any significant ruler’s birth: be it a secular king or religious ruler. For this reason, I believe Matthew drew upon his knowledge of an Old Testament story in which “Balaam” prophesied:
“I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, That will crush the brows of Moab, and the skull of all the Sethites” (Numbers 24:17).
The “star” in this case means the physical Messiah King, Jesus Christ Himself; not the astronomical phenomenon in the Middle East the “Magi” are following all the way to Bethlehem. In a “Christian” messianic interpretation, the “star”, as also the “scepter” from Israel, would refer to Jesus Christ as “King”:
“A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1).
In reality, how many “Magi” do you suppose came to give “homage” to the child Jesus? Where, in Holy Scripture, does it say that “three” Wise Men travelled to Bethlehem? The answer is NOWHERE! We actually base the number of “Magi” as “three” solely on the naming of the three “gifts”- – “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” – – but the actual number of “Magi” that paid “homage” is truly unknown to us.
For me, what is interesting is that neither King Herod, nor His trusted officials recognized the prophesied “Word” being “written” in the heavenly stars. (They did not connect the twinkling dots in the sky.) King Herod (the Great) reigned from about 37 B.C. until 4 A.D. when he died. Per Wikipedia, he may have been an “Edomite”, an Arab from the region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Herod was described by the 1st century A.D. Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (a favorite of mine) as:
“A madman, who murdered his own family, and a great many rabbis.”
However, King Herod was also known for his colossal building projects throughout Jerusalem, and elsewhere in his kingdom, including the rebuilding of the “Second Temple” in Jerusalem (also referred to as Herod’s Temple).
Herod had a “say what!” moment upon listening to the “Magi” about what the “heavenly skies” prophesied. He was confused and also concerned about his lack of knowledge AND for getting NO preemptive warning about this “NEW” king in “his” territory from his own priests, astronomers, and astrologers. Herod was also worried about his personal future welfare, prestige, and physical life, with a “Messiah” king in “his” territory. So, Herod immediately calls ALL his chief advisors, priests, and “scientists” to an immediate presence before him. (Hmm, first century pagers, cell phones, and sirens were going off throughout his kingdom!)
Herod’s consultations with the Temple leaders (the chief priests and Scribes), astrologers, and astronomers of his realm had a very strong similarity to the following “Jewish non-biblical legend” (per a NAB-RE* footnote). This footnoted story is about a child, later learned to be Moses, in which the “sacred scribes” warn the Pharaoh about an imminent birth of “one” who will deliver Israel from Egypt. In this story, the Pharaoh King makes plans to destroy him. (WOW!!!! Moses and Jesus have nearly identical infancy stories. I believe this is one reason why Jesus is often called the “New Moses.”) *(NAB-RE is “New American Bible – Roman [Catholic] Edition”)
Herod’s “chief priests and scribes” also reminded Herod of the prophecy found in the Jewish Scripture (Old Testament) Book of Micah:
“You, Bethlehem-Ephrathaha least among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:1).
The Book of Micah shared with Isaiah the expectation that God the Father will deliver “Israel” through a “king in the line of David”. “Bethlehem-Ephrathah” is the birthplace of David, and therefore, of his whole “Davidic line”. Today, it is known to us as simply, “Bethlehem”.
Herod, and his “chief priests and scribes”, in a somewhat defensive maneuver to what is written in the prophecies found in Jewish Scriptures, asked these “Magi”, these first Gentile believers to be an [unlikely] envoy for King Herod. So, after meeting with Herod, the “three kings” – – the three “Magi” – – travel to Bethlehem, and away from King Herod’s presence (as his “envoy”):
“He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.’” (Matthew 2:8).
“On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
Upon finding Christ, the “Magi prostrate themselves”, an action given ONLY to God. Thus, Jesus is confirmed to be the true Son of God through their action. These “Magi”, – – these three kings, – – willingly left everything they knew: their home and homeland, as well as their friends and family, in an intensely personal search for discovering, and further knowing, this “heavenly” announced “God-King”. They followed THE “star” in pursuit of a personal quest for finding the desire of their hearts, and their pursuit for a personal relationship with this “new divine king” whose name they learn was – – Jesus Christ. – – (They had the ultimate “Map of the Stars”, and did not have to buy it on a Hollywood street corner or on the internet either!)
In the midst of their pilgrimage these “Magi” can serve well as a model for “contemplative listening” today. Whoa, – – what did I say?! Well, what I mean is that their “actions” flowed directly from their personal – – their focused – – learning and true discernment through divine guidance. They had set out on their journey because they perceived the sign of their times in a unique “star” announcing:
“the newborn king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).
Can you see the three gifts of the “Magi”, given to the Holy Family, as a foreshadowing (prophecy) of Jesus’ role in salvation history? I believe the meanings of their gifts are “Christological” in nature (representing the spirit, the person, and the actions of Jesus Christ). “Gold” represents Jesus’ kingship. “Frankincense” is a symbol of His divinity (priests burned frankincense in the Temple). And “Myrrh” was used to prepare the dead for burial, and thus, was offered in anticipation of Jesus’ death. Jesus Christ “was”, “is”, and forever “will be”!!
So, “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” are understood to be symbols of Jesus Christ’s royalty, divinity, and eventual suffering and death (for OUR salvation). In giving these special gifts, the “gold, frankincense, and myrrh”, to Jesus Christ Himself (and to us through His nature), the “Magi” – – those unknown “Gentile” men from foreign lands and cultures – – were the first to acknowledge the “who” Jesus was – – FROM BIRTH – – as the Savior KING – – as OUR Savior King!
The journey we take to God is a long one, lasting our entire lives; only ending with our earthly deaths. Mary, Joseph, and ALL the saints experienced the same long and difficult journey we need to experience.
To know and encounter Jesus Christ is to know the Trinitarian Godhead personally. In today’s story of the “Magi’s” finding and encountering the child Jesus, we see God the Father’s personal plan for salvation to, and for, ALL nations, ALL peoples. God’s divine plan included giving His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, as King and Savior for ALL mankind (even those from far-away lands). God gave us His true and full – – both human and divine – – personhood (in the singular), – – not solely for just the Jewish faithful, – – but for ALL people everywhere!!
In addition to the gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh”, these three men made a “gift” of their individual, unique, and personal “lives” with each step taken in the search for the prophesied “Messiah-Savior-King”. Matthew, by his account of today’s event, eloquently reveals the sincerity and depth of the three “Magi’s” searching quest:
“They were overjoyed at seeing the star” (Matthew2:10).
They “fulfilled” their individual and collective desires in meeting this “singular” “King of Kings”.
After giving Him “homage” and bestowing “gifts” to the newborn child “king”, Jesus Christ, they heeded the Lord’s message to them in a dream, warning them not to return to Herod. So, they returned to their country by another route:
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12).
Nothing is written or otherwise known about what happened to the “Magi” AFTER they left the child-Jesus. They found Jesus – – so their journey seems to have ended for them. BUT, their journey actually did NOT end, and neither has ours; it was just a “turning point” for them as it is for us. Our journeys never end when we finally “find” Christ in our lives; it just puts us on the “proper path” to Him and to everlasting life with Him in paradise..
By their faith, they followed the “star.” By their faith, they found the true Messiah King of ALL peoples. And, by their faith, they returned to their “far off” country via a different route.
Faith is an entirely free gift which God the Father offers to us, and imparts to each of us personally. It is through the help of the Holy Spirit, – – moving in our individual hearts, and opening our individual souls and being – – that we are able to understand, accept, and believe the real divine “truth” which the Trinitarian Godhead reveals to us in personal and unique ways. With trust, love, and faith, OUR human “will” and “intellect” cooperates with God the Father’s imparted grace to each of us:
“Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (Thomas Aquinas).
No matter where I am in my personal search of discovery in God’s faith, Christ is present with me – – and within me – – ALWAYS. I always have the same “star” the “Magi” followed, lighting my way, never leaving me in the dark, distancing me from MY Messiah-Savior-King!!
The visit of the “Magi”, which we celebrate as an “Epiphany”, or manifestation of God’s glory, reveals that the child Jesus whom the “Magi” hailed as the “newborn King of the Jews” (cf., Matthew 2:2), AND who will be crucified under the same title, “King of the Jews” – – is also King of ALL peoples.
I sell myself short in my faith-life often. I don’t always appreciate the power of my faith within me! I don’t realize my capabilities in knowing God. Sometimes, I believe my faith is weak, that my level of sanctity is low – – in my eyes – – not in His. To know and to encounter Jesus Christ is to know and encounter God (in the three Persons: the Trinitarian Godhead) personally and uniquely!! Jesus Christ came so that both Jew and Gentile might find a true and ever-lasting peace with God the Father AND with each other.
We usually do – – and definitely should – – think about God’s goodness to human beings. Today’s story of the “Magi” has turned such thinking the in the opposite direction, around the goodness of human beings TO God instead. Three human beings, the Wise Men, the Magi, brought and gave “gifts” to the “Son of God”. Even though we try to imitate this action in our individual lives, the Son of God is a hard one to shop for. How does one give gifts to the Son of God, who certainly has everything He needs or wants? Well, Jesus Christ helped us with this specific inquiry. He more or less revealed His answer, making it easier for us when He said:
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
How can we become a people and nation which defers to God? We can begin with ourselves. The mysteries of this season invite us to imitate the “Magi”:
“They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts” (Luke 2:11).
Let us prostrate ourselves before Christ the true and promised Messiah-Savior-King, worshiping and adoring Him. Let us offer ALL we have, and listen to His “Word”. Then we shall be ready to serve Him and His Kingdom in heaven and on earth, here and now!!
To some people, the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas time is believed to have been established in remembrance of the gift giving of the “Magi” in today’s Gospel reading. For this reason, in many cultures even still today, gifts are exchanged on the “Feast of the Epiphany” instead of on “Christmas Day”. This makes me think: we should offer gifts to the newborn Jesus today – – and EVERY DAY – – in the form of our personal and public “SELVES” – – our true “Present Self”!! Our “three” “special” gift offerings should be “praise”, “adoration”, and “thanksgiving” for all He has done, all He is doing, and all He will do – – in our lives! Our individual spiritual gifts are much more valuable to Him, and to each other, than the monetary value of ALL the “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” in the entire world!!
The way we devote our time; the way we interact with family and friends, neighbors and strangers, and other creatures and creations; and the way we regulate our material goods, can be signs of Christ’s “kingship” in our lives. How can we offer our very “selves”, our “lives”, more fully to God the Father’s personal and collective love and personal plan He has for each of us? Hmm, let me know what your thoughts are on HOW YOU can do this task.
Let me please finally pass on a couple of reflection questions to each of you. “Do you truly bring Jesus Christ to others in your personal path of life? Do you actively ‘LOOK’ for Jesus Christ in others you encounter along your path of life; especially the ones you would prefer not to look upon?” God loves it so much when we speak “Words” of love, and perform “acts” of blessing, hope, and encouragement as the norm – – instead of the exception. He rejoices when our “Words” and “actions” help to create a positive environment wherein tiny “mustard seeds” of faith can grow to beautiful blooming bushes and trees of immense size. (So, become the “spice” of life; enhance the flavor of God’s working in, with, and through you for and to OTHERS!!)
Take some time to reflect on the tradition of “gift-giving”. (Yes, I know it just passed a few days ago for most of us. But, please, reflect on gift-giving again.) What was the best gift you have ever received (?), and what made it special for you? Was it the actual gift itself that made it special (?), was it the thought that went into it (?), or was it the person who gave it to you which made it special? (There are no “right or wrong” answers”, so don’t stress out on the correct answer.) Do you bring the twinkling “light of Jesus Christ” to those you meet – – through the witness of your personal and public life, and through the witness of your personal and public testimony of, and to, Jesus Christ? Has this specific reflection today been a gift to you? It has been a gift writing my thoughts on this Gospel reading.
Please pray that you will also acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal “Savior” in all that you do, say, and “impart” to others throughout your personal and public route in life. Let us ALL pray today that Jew and Gentile alike will find the “true” divine King and Savior, Jesus Christ, on each of our personal journeys through life. Let us ALL become “Magi” Wise One’s – – “Camel Jockey’s” – – in OUR search of the true “Way, Truth, and Life”!! So, head towards to the light – – of the “new shining ‘star’”!
“Epiphany Morning Prayer”
you revealed your Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star.
Lead us to your glory in heaven
by the light of faith.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen
The Liturgy of the Hours