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The Epiphany to the Gentiles
Gospel Reflection for January 8, 2023 - Mt 2:1-12
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.
Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.
And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born.
But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:
And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them;
And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him.
Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.
And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country. (DRA)
One of the most common features of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass prior to the reforms following the Second Vatican Council was the use of incense. At every High Mass, incense served as a poignant reminder that the sacrifice of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ offered on Calvary and presented eternally to the Father in the Heavenly Liturgy is re-presented by the priest, acting in persona Christi. Like the animal sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple, incense offers a “sacrifice of most sweet odour,” (Num 28:2) physically expressing the renunciation and fasting, both from good things and bad, which are required to grow in holiness and loving union with God. Sadly, despite its inclusion in the GIRM for the Novus Ordo, incense is rarely seen in Masses today, acting as another ease and convenience for the faithful which detracts from the sacrificial heart of the Divine Liturgy.
Unlike many Catholics today, the Magi understood that true love is sacrifice. Even though they were Gentiles born in nations far from the Holy Land, likely with little knowledge of Scripture or the Hebrew religion, nevertheless they used their knowledge of astronomy to follow a “star” which they knew would lead to the newborn King of the Jews. They were willing to risk the perils of long travel just to see a prophesied king whose identity and guiding light they followed by faith.
The identity of the Magi, how they knew about the star and what it signified, are separate topics. Instead, I want to focus on the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. St. Gregory the Great explains the symbolic meaning of these offerings: “Gold, as to a King; frankincense, as sacrifice to God; myrrh, as embalming the body of the dead.” But he also insightfully recognizes deeper significance behind them:
Something further may yet be meant here. Wisdom is typified by gold; as Solomon saith in the Proverbs, A treasure to be desired is in the mouth of the wise. (Prov. 21:20.) By frankincense, which is burnt before God, the power of prayer is intended, as in the Psalms, Let my speech come before thee as incense. (Ps. 141:2.) In myrrh is figured mortification of the flesh. To a king at his birth we offer gold, if we shine in his sight with the light of wisdom; we offer frankincense, if we have power before God by the sweet savour of our prayers; we offer myrrh, when we mortify by abstinence the lusts of the flesh. (Catena Aurea)
How are the gifts of the Magi relevant to the use of incense at Mass? It came as a great and wondrous surprise to me when, a couple years ago, I learned that liturgical incense consists of frankincense and myrrh, burnt in a gold censer. What a beautiful connection to the Feast of the Epiphany! Not only does incense remind us that the Mass is a sacrifice, but, as St. Gregory recognized, it can also inspire us to seek Wisdom which, as the knowledge of God, is the highest kind of treasure; to cultivate a deeper prayer life, which the Psalmist sees as expressed in the rising of incense to God, just as St. John would one day see the prayers of the saints delivered to God by the angels as bowls of incense: “And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God.” (Rev 8:3); and, finally, incense can serve as a memento mori, a reminder of death, both that of Christ and us, and a motivation to mortify the flesh by combating the disordered desires and attachments to sin which distract us from Christ and prevent us from loving as He loves. Thus, through the power of incense, the Magi continue to speak to us today on this Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord!