Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Epiphany reflections on the Christian vocation

By Veronica A. Arntz

The Gospels tell us very little about the wise men, or the Magi, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, who came from the East to worship the newborn Christ Child. While tradition says that there were three of them, named Balthasar, Melchior, and Jaspar, we do not even have knowledge of that from the Scriptures.[1] What we do know is that these wise men, who were Gentiles, followed a star in the heavens so that they could come to Bethlehem to worship Christ, the King of Israel. In reflecting on the event of the Magi, we can learn something about our own vocation, namely, that God calls us out of our comfort to pursue him in a radical way, following the royal road of the Cross. 

The Old Testament prophesied the coming of the Magi, although the prophets could not know or fathom that God Himself would take on human flesh and become one of us. A prophecy from the mouth of Balaam, who was sent by Balak to curse the people of Israel, tells of the star, which the wise men will follow: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not hear: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17, RSV-CE). Jesus Christ, who is the Son of David, Son of Jacob, is the star who will arise and rule over all Israel. Furthermore, Isaiah 60:1-6 gives another prophecy; this is the Epistle reading for the 1962 Mass of the Epiphany. It is worth citing the entire passage for reference:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light, and kings in the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6).

This prophecy is given to the Israelite people when they were under the rule of an unworthy king, King Ahaz. The Lord promises through Isaiah that the people will be restored, and they will be given a light. No longer will they walk in darkness, but the light of the Lord will guide them. Those who have been scattered will be brought together again, and he directly prophesies concerning the coming of the men from the east, who will bring gold and frankincense, and will proclaim the glory of the Lord. In other words, men who are not Israelites will be joined with them to give praise and glory to God.

These prophecies are fulfilled with the birth of Christ. The wise men from the East came to Herod in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). We are familiar with the story: Herod, feeling threatened by this newborn king, asks the men to return by Jerusalem when they have found the newborn King, so that he also can worship Him, but the wise men return home by a different route. They even cite the prophet Micah, who foretold, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel” (Micah 5:2). This means that they have been observing and listening; they are familiar with the Jewish religion.

They continue to follow the star until it rests over Bethlehem, and as we read in Matthew, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:10-11).

Here, we see that these three pagan wise men worship Jesus Christ, the King over not only the Israelites, but also over the whole Universe. How can we not acknowledge that Jesus is God? For otherwise, this worship would not be any different from other pagan rituals. We thus find the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: Christ has come to recapitulate all things under Himself, for He has come to bring all men, even the Gentiles, under His reign. The very fact that the Magi worship the Christ Child proves this reality.

What does the story of the Magi tell us about our own vocation? The Magi were willing to follow the sign of the star, albeit through the gift of faith, to worship a King who was not of their own religion—they traveled many long miles to show their allegiance to the newborn King of Israel. One can imagine the sacrifices such a journey required; moreover, it required not only physical sacrifices, but also sacrifices of their own intellect and will. They would be fundamentally changed by worshipping the new King; no longer could they serve the gods of their own religion, whatever they might be. We too are called beyond our comfort to give worship to Christ the King. We, who live in the New Covenant, know that we owe everything to Christ—we must give Him our whole minds, hearts, souls, and beings. We find this reality expressed in the Collect for the Mass of the Epiphany of the Lord:

Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum gentibus stella duce relevasti: concede propitious; ut, qui jam te ex fide cognovimus, usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum.

O God, Who on this day didst manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles by the guidance of a star: graciously grant, that we, who know Thee now by faith, may be led even to contemplate the beauty of Thy Majesty.

We, who are now given the gift of faith, and not the mere sign of a star, are called to contemplate the beauty of the King. We are called to reject sin and Satan, so that we might worship Christ as King over the Universe, and indeed, over our whole lives. Are we perhaps hiding behind some sin, so that we do not need to give everything to Christ? Or, are we like the Magi, who willingly surrendered everything to worship Christ as King?

The story of the Magi wonderfully reveals the Divine Providence of God. Even during the time of the Israelites, God fully intended to reveal His Son to all the nations, so that all people might give Him worship. His Providence foresaw what is written to the Philippians, “Therefore God has highly exalted him [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Every knee—Israelite and Gentile—shall bend before the Lord. Let the story of the Magi remind us of the sublime nature of our calling, that we too, as disciples of Christ, have the vocation to surrender our lives to Christ and worship Him as the King of the Universe.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Infancy Narratives (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), 89ff.