for the Epiphany of the Lord
Is 60:1-6 - Eph 3:2-3a & 5-6 - Mt 2:1-12
by Canon Dr. Daniel Meynen
Gold and incense
Each year, from 1999 to 2004, I wrote a homily on the gospel of Saint Matthew discussing the Mystery celebrated on this day: that of the Epiphany of the Lord. Each of these homilies is different from the others. You will find them on my site, at the following addresses:
In each of these previous homilies, I refrained from speaking of the gifts brought by the Magi and given to the Child Jesus, as well as to Mary and Joseph: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This omission was voluntary, for the account of the Epiphany, although present only in Saint Matthew and not in the other evangelists, includes many other subjects on which to comment. Today, I will complete my previous commentaries with some words on the gold and frankincense offered in homage to the King of the Universe.
Is 60:3, And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. 4, 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. 5, 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. 6, 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.
Eph 3:3, The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4, When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; 6, that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Mt 2:1-2 & 7-12
Mt 2:1, Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2, «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.» 7, Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8, and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, «Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.» 9, When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10, When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11, 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. 12, And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
"I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." (Acts 3:6) So says Peter, the great Apostle, a fisherman, a poor man among the poor, addressing himself to a man "lame from birth" (Acts 3:2). Peter does not have a cent, he is not one of those new Christians who, generously, with charity and humility, sell their goods and give the price to the nascent community (cf. Acts 4:34-35).
Thus Peter, in the light of the Holy Spirit who had just descended upon him, understands that, if there is anything that is as valuable as gold, or even more valuable, it is the divine Power itself. For only God can heal a man in the name of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth: "And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God." (Acts 3:7-8)
So what is this gold that is brought by the nations, of which Isaiah speaks? What could it signify, this gold offered by the wise men to the Child Jesus? This gold is quite simply the unique and perfect sign of divine Omnipotence! Far from being the appanage of a power that is human, feeble, fragile, and ridiculously proud of ephemeral riches, gold honors the divinity of the Child-God, a divinity that is holy, pure, and eminent: just as, naturally, gold is a metal that is precious, incorruptible, and universally sought.
Does God need our gold, our silver? Should we imitate the wise men and offer God some bits of metal, no matter how precious? Certainly, God needs neither our gold nor our silver. And yet we must, in spirit, offer to God all that we have. For we must keep nothing for ourselves. Above all, we must offer ourselves to God, completely, without any restriction, as if we were the purest gold there is!
"Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee." (Psalm 140:2) "And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God." (Rev. 8:3-4) Incense is not our prayer. The smoke of the incense that is consumed is not our prayer. But our prayer rises up to God like incense smoke. Our prayer, which is spiritual, is signified or symbolized by incense smoke, which is material and corporeal.
The Christian liturgy periodically manifests, at least each Sunday, the life of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. The liturgy extends and manifests, like another epiphany, the life of Christ himself. And, as Christ came to reveal and manifest, on earth, in a body, the life of God who is Spirit, similarly, the liturgy allows us, by means of all creation, and in particular by means of incense, to lift up to the thrice-holy divinity the prayer coming out of our heart and mouth!
I would not want to end this homily without mentioning today's second reading, in which Saint Paul writes: "The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." How wonderful! God, who first chose the Jewish people, has associated us to that election, in Christ Jesus, so that we now form, all nations together, but a single and unique Body of Christ!
Through Mary, the Mother of Christ and of the Church, may our prayer, and the prayer of all the faithful, rise up to the Lord, like the frankincense given by the wise men, in the image of the nations coming from Sheba!