The solemnity of the Epiphany typically gets short shrift in Latin-rite Catholicism, for while eastern Christianity lifts up the Epiphany as the apex of the Christmas season, Epiphany in the western Church tends to get overwhelmed by the tsunami of Christmas, both liturgically and (especially) culturally.
When the Epiphany fell in the middle of the week and was a holy day of obligation, its importance as the commemoration of the “manifestation” of the Messiah was underscored; transferred to a Sunday, it tends to become one-Sunday-among-others. The pre-1970 liturgical calendar recognized the significance of the Epiphany by designating “Sundays after Epiphany” between the conclusion of the Christmas season and the beginning of pre-Lent, thus stretching out the Church’s meditation on the Epiphany over several weeks. Now, Epiphany is quickly succeeded by the feast of the Lord’s Baptism, after which the liturgical period known by that dreadful neologism, “Ordinary Time,” begins.
While we wait in joyful hope (as we no longer say) for the restoration of some sanity to the liturgical calendar, we can be grateful for the insights into the Epiphany-and especially into those emblematic characters in the story, the Magi and the star-offered by Pope Benedict XVI in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (Image).
As always with this scholar-pope, it’s the theology that counts, and Benedict’s theological reading of the Epiphany and the Magi story makes several important points.
The Magi-the Wise Men, the Three Kings-are crucial figures in salvation history for they were the first gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah promised to the people of Israel, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. That’s not a new insight, of course; what is striking in Benedict’s interpretation of their story is his expansion of the meaning of the Magi’s journey. The “Wise Men from the east,” he writes, “mark a “new beginning.” In them, we find “the journeying of humanity toward Christ.” Thus these Three Kings “initiate a procession that continues throughout history.” Moreover, they represent more than those who have actually found the Lord: “they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason” toward Christ. The Magi embody the truth of which Paul wrote in one of his great Christological hymns: “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
Then there is the star. After noting that this extraordinary phenomenon might have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7-6 B.C. (that is, just about the time of the birth of Christ), the pope gets down to the real point, which is not astronomy but theology. The stars, Benedict recalls, were once thought to be divine powers that controlled the fates of men and women: thus the phrase, “it’s in the stars,” and thus the pseudo-”science” of astrology. The Epiphany and the Magi story reverse all of this.
For “it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny,” the pope writes; “it is the child that directs the star.” Astrology is out; humanity, so to speak, is in. And so, Benedict continues, “we may speak here of a kind of anthropological revolution: human nature assumed by God-as revealed in God’s only-begotten Son-is greater than all the powers of the material world, greater than the entire universe.”
The star, perceived with the eyes of faith and understood by the tools of theology, tells a brilliant, if not fully comprehended, story. If the Wise Men were led by a star to find the newborn king of the Jews who is in truth the universal savior, Benedict tells us, “this implies that the entire cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state.” The “language of creation” points us toward the truth about the Creator, which is that God who creates is also God who redeems.
Thus the Epiphany points us toward the Cross (anticipated in the Magi’s gift of myrrh, which is also used at Jesus’ burial) and, ultimately, to the Resurrection.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.