The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring
All kings shall pay him homage,
nations shall serve Him.
Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance,” and because Christ was made known to the wise men, whose number and names we are not told by Matthew, the feast has always been associated with the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The manifestation has many references and has been understood in more than one way. The Feast of the Epiphany was originated in the East, where it celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, which was the occasion of His identification as the Messiah by John the Baptist and the coming from heaven of the voice of God: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” By the fourth century it has taken a place with the Feast of the Resurrection and the celebration of Pentecost as a great festival of the Church. Adopted in the West, the Feast of the Epiphany became a celebration of the manifestation of Jesus to the wise men as representatives of the Gentiles, and as the celebration found its way to the heart of Christendom the wise men were numbered three and given names, Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar.
In an earlier sense represented just after the turn of the first Christian century by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the manifestation of Christ was the work of the star. Christ was born into a world governed by the lights of heaven. The heavenly bodies were the arbiters of time, signs for the seasons, for days and years (Genesis 1:14). For both Plato and Aristotle the stars were living intelligences, and for the Hebrews they were angelic, or demonic, presences. For the Babylonians and the Romans the stars announced the future with heavenly prodigies and determined the fate of mortals. When in Julius Caesar Cassius says, “The fault, dear Brutus, in not in the stars but in ourselves,” he is claiming the Christian view, Shakespeare’s own, that our destiny is in our hands, not, as a Roman would have held, determined by the movements of the circling heavenly bodies.
Saint Ignatius saw the star that led the wise men as a supernatural manifestation of the appearing of Christ amongst the stars whose pattern represented the ignorance and necessity of a fallen world. Christ’s coming into the world, His birth, Mary’s virginity, His death, had been accomplished quietly, “wrought in God’s silence,” yet they cried out to be told and the telling belonged to a star that shone in heaven, “brighter than all the stars,” The stars, with the sun and moon, then arranged themselves around this new star.”
As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with and the ancient kingdom was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God has prepared was now beginning.… The destruction of death was being taken in hand.”
Ignatius saw that at Christ’s birth nature through the star that guided the Magi had announced the birth of the Savior of man and the cosmos. The wise men, adept in what Persians would have considered the highest science, astrology, had seen “His star,” which they knew to be the star of “the King of the Jews” in their eastern land. The star had then led them “to the place where the child was.” Rejoicing, they offered their gifts, and then returned to their own land.
This account presupposes the truth that nature knows its own master at least in the sense that the created order bears the impress of God’s wisdom. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” And at a certain time the star announced the birth of the king. There are many mysteries. What came to the magi must have been revelation. They had not learned to expect the King of the Jews from reading the prophets, for they did not arrive in Jerusalem with knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures; the wise men did not know where Christ was to be born until the scholars assembled by Herod to interpret this strange, and to Herod threatening, mission told them the prophecy of Micah: “You, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah… from you shall come a ruler who shall govern my people Israel” (5:2).
It is not easy to believe that great scholars from the East had any particular interest in the king of an insignificant and distant people. Jews they may have known, for Jews had been dispersed throughout the near East since the deportations to Babylon that began in BC 589. But that the birth of a child in a distant land, even were he destined to rule an obscure people, should have the significance that prompted the long journey to an unknown place bearing the most costly of gifts; this knowledge can only have been manifested to these wise men by a revelation of no less power than the revelation to the shepherds or indeed to the Blessed Virgin herself.
And there is this seeming oddity. Their mission accomplished, having avoided Herod’s malice, they returned to their own country by another way. What story they told when they returned to the East we are not told. But it is certain that these wise men were the firstfruits of the Gentiles. When Herod sought to destroy the child, in his fear committing the great slaughter remembered at the Feast of the Holy Innocents, these Gentiles worshiped and brought gifts. Just as Herod had sought to kill the child, when Jesus was made known in Israel, the rulers of the people had neither worshiped nor brought gifts, but it was to the gentiles that Paul and Peter had turned when there had been no place in the story of Israel or in the nation’s heart for the crucified Savior. Preached by Jews, founded in the holy literature of Israel, the religion of Christ became the glad possession of those Gentile kings who followed the star.