The very first reading for the First Sunday of Advent included a promise that all nations would stream toward the mountain of the Lord’s house (Is 2:2). Today we see this promise fulfilled. Magi from the East arrive to pay homage to the newborn king. Though the Gospel does not say much about them, apocryphal stories grew up to enhance the biblical data. According to the Eastern tradition, there were 12 magi. The Western tradition maintains that there were three, corresponding to the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the early church the three magi were seen as representatives of the three major races: Melchior, the black-skinned people; Balthasar, the Asiatics; and Gaspar, the Europeans. This signified the universal character of God’s saving grace.
The star suggests that these men possessed significant astrological knowledge. Gradually, the star came to represent enlightenment. This theme is re-enforced by the reading from Isaiah, which speaks of Jerusalem’s rescue from darkness. But not only Jerusalem is led into the light; all nations are so blessed. Paul echoes this theme when he states that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body.” Both ancient Israel and the early Christians believed that God’s loving kindness was open to all peoples, regardless of race or ethnic origin.
This is an important message for us today, when there is such racial, ethnic and religious intolerance in so many parts of the world. Our cities are torn apart by bigotry; sometimes our local parish communities are as well. Regardless of the actual number of magi or their cultural profile, the overarching theme of the feast of the Epiphany is the universal scope of God’s revelation. All peoples are invited to rejoice in the glory of the Lord; the signs of God’s presence are revealed to all. Following the example of the magi, we are meant to respond to God’s gift together.