The Epiphany

The Epiphany

In this beautiful homily for The Epiphany of the Lord, Year B, Father Hanly helps us understand the meaning and importance of The Epiphany.

Readings for the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, Year B

  • First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
  • Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
  • Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12



(Apologies, beginning of homily missing.)

And, of course, everything in it has double and triple meanings, so what I’d like to do is maybe go over this lovely little Gospel and maybe give you a little bit of a better understanding of what lies behind it.

Of course,

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,

that meant that he was in King David’s city. And King David, of course, all of Bethlehem became the House of David.

And the prophecy was that the Messiah would come from the House of David. He was promised that many, many years before he passed away, that he had not to worry, but the Messiah would not only be born from his family, but also from the place where he himself was a shepherd and where he grew up.

Herod at this time was the king. Herod was one who was a master builder, so even if you go to Palestine today and you look around at the world of Herod, you see the remains of a great many buildings that show how anxious he was to make Jerusalem look like something very, very important.

Herod at this time, however, had deteriorated and became incredibly paranoid. In fact, he had killed wives and some of his own sons who he thought were vying for his place as king. And so he was quite dangerous.

And yet, when he heard the news of the Messiah, he had enough faith to actually maybe believe he was the Messiah.

But, instead of wonderful welcoming the Messiah, what he did was he became paranoid and he set out immediately to find ways to destroy him. Because Herod didn’t care about the hereafter, but here and now there was only one king and that king was Herod himself.

All of a sudden, we have the three kings. Now the three kings were not kings, they were magi.

Magi were kind of a group of people in those days that, in all the near Eastern countries, the king would use them for very special purposes. They were scholars. They read a lot. They also were people who looked at the stars. They were astrologers.

And, as astrologers, they began to see something quite different. They saw a new star that was rising. And they looked it up. And they knew enough, and this is not a surprise, they knew the Jewish people very well.

Because the Jewish people, of course, had their own writings and, three hundred years before, the Babylonian army came down and destroyed Jewish Judea and northern Judea and they took prisoner many of the people there.

And when they brought them back to become slaves, the Jews also brought their songs and their religion, and so the people in Babylon were very, very familiar about the belief system of the strange Jewish people.

So when these three kings, as we call them now, the magi, were studying, they recognised that there had been many prophecies that someday a Messiah would come and he would be born in Palestine. He would be born even close to Jerusalem, perhaps. And so they set out and began the long journey from Babylon and the areas around Babylon.

We only know them as three, but there could be more. The reason we know them as the three kings is because of the gifts they bring: they bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. But that doesn’t mean that there were only three. It could have been two. It could have been fifty. Nobody really knows. But the three, of course, carries symbolic meaning, and that is very, very important.

Anyhow, the word comes that they have arrived in Jerusalem and they’re not quite sure where the Messiah is going to be born.

So they go in and they get an audience with King Herod. And, of course, King Herod is waiting, in a sense, for bad news.

And, of course, they come and they say this, they say,

“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”

And, of course, this is like lightning, and he’s greatly afraid now, because this is a very strange thing happening. He knows the magi are educated people. He knows that they are religious people. There’s magicians among them. They’ve all kinds of things that he’s quite frightened about, and so

When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.

Why all of Jerusalem?

They didn’t care who was king and they should welcome the Messiah. But not a Messiah born in Bethlehem, not a Messiah that was poor, not a Messiah…

He had to be born of somebody they knew, somebody famous. It had to be a great prophet. It had to be someone, even John the Baptist would satisfy, someone who had face and someone who had strength, because they hoped that the Messiah was going to throw the Romans out once and for all from their own country and they would be free again.

So everybody was troubled. Nobody wanted a Messiah at this time.


Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

Christ and Messiah are the same. Messiah is Hebrew for Christos, which is the Christ. The name really means “the anointed one of God.”

Where was he to be born?

They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,

They’re quoting the prophet Micah, a prophet of three hundred years before this time:

They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

(Inaudible) only known for one thing: the little shepherd boy who was from Bethlehem had become their most outstanding king when he was made King of Israel.

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Notice the word “shepherd.” Remember Jesus said when they asked him who you are, one of the words he says, “I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep know me and I know my sheep.”

who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

And, of course, that only heightened Herod’s fears.

Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”

This is very sneaky, isn’t it, it’s secret. He’s out to kill him and later on, you know, the poor little children of Bethlehem suffered from it. “When you have found him bring me word and I will go and worship Him.” Herod was half out of his mind by this time.

After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star …

The star is wonderful. One of the first poems that I learned when I was a child in primary school, Sister taught us, it was:

“Two men look out from prison bars,
one saw mud and one saw stars.”

And, from that moment on, stars mattered a little bit more than just junk up in the sky, pretty much. They had a new life. And there were so many things they’re used to express, like starlight, it was like touching heaven when you spoke of stars.

And, of course, for the magi, who studied stars, stars were not just lumps of rock, stars had meaning. And they had more than meaning: they were omens for good news or bad news. And, of course, this was all absorbed by the people at that time.

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house

You notice house, not the stable, by this time they had managed to find housing some place in Bethlehem when the three kings arrived.

So they entered the house and this very famous line,

and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.

Very, very simple. Nothing else.

they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold is for kings. Frankincense is divinity, worship. And myrrh is the perfume of death. And, of course, these were the three symbols.

The kingship: the child is a king. Frankincense: he has come from God and, like incense rising now from the earth to heaven, it describes the Messiah. And myrrh, myrrh, the most difficult one: the Messiah shall die, he shall die and be wrapped in fragrant perfume.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.

You probably don’t even think about it, but how did these three men, these three magi, these three kings, if you will, it seems like they must have been very innocent. It seems the whole story is full of these wonderful little… like God is having His way and God is trying to reach us through what happens in this very simple story.

And this is what Matthew is trying to tell us, you know.

So these three very sophisticated kings come and they see what?

They see a mother and a child, a poor mother and a poor child, and nothing else. No money, no name.

And this is supposed to be the one who is going to save Israel? Not only save Israel, it’s the Messiah who will save the whole world.

And why did they believe?

Because they looked at that child, expecting that he would be housed like a king and he would march around with strength and power and his word would be obeyed, and they saw this would never happen, for this child was not born for power, he was not born that people would kneel before him, he was born for the simple poor. And then they understood.

And what did they understand?

What you and I understand: that the people who make the deepest impression on us are not people with money or with special kind of even gifts. The people who touch our hearts can only touch our hearts by their humility, their silence, their kindness and, most of all, their need.

And they could see this, that the Messiah now would come in a way that nobody ever dreamed of, that if he came on a big horse and marched through the city and gathered all his people around him and we had big parties and worshipped him, he wouldn’t be a Messiah, he’d just be another carbon copy of the rest of us who want these things.

And what is lost?

Only the poor can love, because they’re the only ones that it’s all they have. If you have nothing, you’re thrown on each other’s mercy.

There is an old saying. Well, it’s not an old saying, it’s Jesus’ saying: “Blessed are the poor.”

What does he mean?

Blessed are those who know their need for God, but, even more, blessed are those who know their need for each other.

And it’s the need for each other that fashions the hope. Because hope rises in the human heart, not as a great powerful force, it rises as someone who knows and believes in this world that they have nothing, but if they put their trust in God and put their trust in each other, they will have touched God and they will have touched each other. And this is what we call Christian love.

And so they went home and they never came back.


Because they knew that whenever they touched another human being with humble poverty and willingness to serve, that they would have found the Messiah.

For that is what he came to do. And that is what he does.

The Messiah is not a leader marching in front of an army. He’s deep in the heart, a heart that knows that it must go out, and with compassion and love and forgiveness and caring, and this is what makes the great strength of man.

This is true, isn’t it? I mean every famous man that you know, that you really admire, isn’t somebody with a sword. It’s somebody who very humbly comes in and opens your heart in a very special way, and touches you in a very special way, and makes you understand that it is the gentle kindness of God that we need and to share it with each other.

The journey of our life is very simple. We are here to learn how to love, to learn how to love not as the great lovers love, to learn how to love as Jesus loves: to forgive, to be kind, to serve, to bring hope and peace and honour and all of these things.

And to learn this is very difficult, because we fall many times.

I had a person in confession many years ago and she had suffered greatly and she was crying. And all I said to her was, “It’s okay. God counts the tears.” And, all of a sudden, for some reason or other, her life changed.

And why is that?

Because sometimes we are so worried about things and projects — and even in the religious world in which we live, all kinds of things that must work — when it’s as simple as a child and a mother in a little village in Bethlehem that says, “I am here with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”

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