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Epiphany is one of my favorite solemnities. I especially love the story of the three kings.
There are many traditions about who the three kings were: that they were kings from an area of Persia; or philosophers; or astronomers hailing from the city of Babylon (which would have been in present-day Iraq, between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf). Whoever they were and wherever they had come from, the fact is that they have come and have traveled a long distance.
Wonder in the Three Kings’ Story
I mention this because it is easy to take this detail for granted. I’ve heard this story so many times that I just presume that everyone who saw the star were immediately compelled to embark on a thousand-mile journey through the desert—which is how far it was from Babylon to Jerusalem.
But look at King Herod. The star is shining right above him, but he doesn’t travel the four miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Four miles.
I also find it easy to overlook what happens at the meeting between the three kings and Herod. The three kings arrive in Jerusalem, pull up to Herod’s place, and say, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star...” This begs the question: how did the three kings know that the star was connected to a newborn king? And notice: they pulled up to Herod’s place expecting that he would know.
In the ancient world, there were prophecies that had spoken about the coming of a Messiah from the land of Judah—which is where Jerusalem and Bethlehem are. But these prophecies weren’t just circulating in the local area; nor where they coming only from the Old Testament prophets. Similar prophecies were circulating in the pagan lands surrounding Israel—including in such lands as Persia where the kings were from. Even the poet Virgil from across the Mediterranean in Italy, forty years before Jesus’ birth—even he waxed poetic about a coming savior. The whole world was receiving word that something big was about to happen. Virgil knew about it. The three kings knew about it. But Herod did not.
And that’s really odd. Because this is the most important prophecy ever—and it has to do with his kingdom! I mean, how could he have forgotten or overlooked the most important prophecy of his kingdom?
So he calls in the priests and scribes and of course they know the answer: namely, that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.
But hang on a second! The chief priests and the scribes knew where the Messiah was to be born? They know and they see the star?!? If they knew and they saw, then why weren’t they all already in Bethlehem?
Don’t we find all of this… odd?
Here we have three kings. Foreign kings. Kings that aren’t even a part of our religion. And they are the ones with the wonder to travel all this way to ask what our prophecies mean?
Shouldn’t this have woken up the chief priests? Shouldn’t this have alerted the scribes? And Herod? And inspired in them a deep desire to go with the three kings—instead of just telling them to go on ahead without them?
RCIA and the Three Kings
As a priest here at St. Joe’s, I am the director of the RCIA—the program of formation for those who are interested in joining the Catholic Church. This year, we have thirty-three people seeking to join us in the faith. As I have gotten to know them, I have been re-awakened to the beauty of our faith and to the fact that there are many people—yes, many people—who are seeking and who are longing to receive what we receive.
This wakes me up. It inspires me to renew my search for Jesus and to fight against the complacency that finds it so easy to tell others to search for Jesus while I stay comfortable where I’m at. It inspires me—and it also softens my heart for those who are searching.
Anyone, no matter what religion they are—if they are a Buddhist, a New Ager, a Muslim, a Protestant, or even an Agnostic Scientist—no matter what religion they are, if they are genuinely searching for the Truth—genuinely seeking—then they are walking in a great procession behind the three kings who come to us today.
And notice: their search does not bring them firstly to Bethlehem. Their search takes them to Jerusalem: the place of the temple and the palace and the prophets. There in Jerusalem, the three kings first discover the sacred religion of God who has called them there by his star. And it is only when the three kings encounter the scriptures—albeit through blind and bumbling Herod and his scribes—only when the kings encounter this religion are they then pointed to Bethlehem. In other words, without this initial encounter with the sacred religion of Israel, the three kings and their New Age spirituality and science would still be searching. This alerts us to the reality that until science and New Agers and all the rest discover the light of faith, they will continue to search. It is this light that has brought many to our RCIA. Praise God!
The Holy Mass and the Three Kings
What can we say from here?
After that initial discovery of the faith, the three kings then begin a humble procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It is a kind of new Exodus away from an old kind of Pharaoh. It was a procession that would have included Herod and all of Jerusalem, but instead it is a very small procession—like that which we see at the beginning of Holy Mass or in the middle when the gifts are brought forward.
The kings come in procession to Bethlehem—which means “House of Bread.” There, they present to Jesus their gifts—sacrifices and offerings which they pray will be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. But they do not just give. They receive something in return. In that House of Bread and from the manger which was a feeding trough, they receive Jesus, the Bread of Life, God Himself. The three kings, recognizing the great gift they have received, quickly run for the doors. No, they do Him homage. They adore. They know that they have received more than they have given.
Their gratitude overflows and a new procession is taken up. Just as our altar servers take up their candles once more and process from the Mass, the three kings return to their country by another route. What does this mean? It means that their lives will never be the same. Having met Jesus, they will never go back to Herod. And their country is not simply Persia. Their country is now the kingdom of heaven.
I hope you see then, that there is a great connection between the story of the three kings and what goes on here at the Holy Mass: from the procession to the altar, beckoning us to journey in faith to Bethlehem; to the procession of the kingly gifts at the offertory; to the final procession is the journey home by another route—a new kind of living having been changed by who we have received here at Holy Mass. All of these simple actions are not simply movement from here to there, but are truly full of meaning and wonder!
Becoming One of the Kings
Seek and you shall find, says the Lord. Enter into the procession of faith with the kings today. Seek with hopefulness, even if you have been disappointed in the past. Our Lord promises that you will find. Do not give up the search. Because one day you will see. And in that moment you will adore. I pray that that moment is today. And then, having adored, our lives will be changed. We will experience our own Epiphany: we will realize that we have become one of the kings in the great procession that leads to heaven!