Opening the Word: Wise Men serve as models of Christian life

“Worship,” observed writer Father Gerald Vann, “is not a part of the Christian life: It is the Christian life.”  

Today’s solemnity is a celebration of the epiphaneia — the revelation and manifestation — of God in the form of a man, Jesus the Christ. Throughout the centuries this feast focused on three different but closely related events: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. Each reveals the radical, transforming truth of the Incarnation. And each, in turn, opens up further the mystery of God and calls man to worship and adore him. 

The mystery of the Incarnation and the call to worship are central in today’s Gospel, which recounts the well-known story of the Magi from the East seeking “the newborn king of the Jews.” The Magi are among the most mysterious figures in the Gospel; we don’t even know how many journeyed to find Jesus, although the total of three has become the popular number. In the ancient Near East a magus could have been one of several things: a magician, a Persian priest or even a man practicing occultic arts. But these men were most likely Persian astrologers, with a reputation for being skilled at studying and interpreting the movements of the stars and planets. 

St. Matthew’s Gospel often refers to Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in and through the coming of Christ (see Mt 2:17,23; 4:14; 13:14; 27:9). In writing of the Magi, he pointed his readers to Isaiah 60. There the prophet Isaiah wrote of a coming time when the glory of Jerusalem would fill and bless the entire world: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” The wealth of nations — including gifts of “gold and frankincense” — would be brought by foreign kings, who would worship God in the holy city, “proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” And today’s responsorial Psalm also emphasizes this theme of worship: “May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him” (Ps 72:10-11). 

This highlights a truth often proclaimed by Jesus: that the kingdom of God is offered to and will include peoples from all nations. And the Magi represent the first of a vast number of Gentiles brought into the family of God through the Christ Child. Even in his quiet and hidden birth, Jesus began to draw all men to himself. “In the Magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation” (No. 528). In the New Covenant the radiant glory of the Lord will shine upon all people, dispelling the darkness of sin and despair. 

The actions and responses of the Magi reveal how the divine light destroys the darkness and leads to worship of the true God. First, they saw the star and recognized that it was unique. Second, upon having this epiphany (itself a divine gift of grace), they traveled in order “to do him homage.” They had no fear of seeking the newborn king of the Jews because they were filled with joy and anticipation. Third, they came into the presence of Jesus and “prostrated themselves and did him homage.” Having worshipped him, they offered gifts. We, too, are called to worship, for worship is the Christian life.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of