Tag Archives: Magi

Sunday Sermon: the Epiphany of the three Magi

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Any number of times over the years the inspiration for these “Sunday Sermon” pieces has been drawn from some idea put forward by the priests at my church.

Today, Father Sean English provided that inspiration with his sermon in which he spoke of the “Three Kings” in relation to today’s celebration of the Epiphany.

The Epiphany goes by a few other names as well, depending on your cultural background or the specific church to which you may belong. The most frequent are for “Little Christmas” or “Three Kings Day” celebrations.

In today’s world, when someone is said to have an “epiphany” it means that some sudden realization has come upon them. A moment of clarity in which something fundamental is revealed to them.

The “three kings” or “three wise men” or even the “Magi” as they have alternately been known through history are credited with both having and passing on such an epiphany following the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

The word “Magi” is an ancient one. It referred to those who practiced what was known as magic, usually including incorporation and study of alchemy and astrology. These were extremely learned men, bordering on what today would be called scientists more than true magicians.

As Father Sean explained today, the Magi of Jesus’ time were not necessarily aligned with any particular religion. However, they were acquainted with all faith systems, including Judaism.

The Magi may have been followers or even priests of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. No matter, they certainly would know of the ancient Jewish prophecy regarding the coming of a Savior.

The western Christian churches, including the Catholic Church founded by Jesus himself, believe and teach that there were three of these wise Magi men. That theory was drawn from writings showing that three gifts were brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One thing is almost certain, they were not “kings” in the classic sense of the word. The reference to “three kings” is almost certainly drawn from prophecies such as Psalm 72 which said “all kings shall fall down before him” in the Jewish Torah, or Old Testament.

The three were said to have come “from the east”, drawn by a star in the sky which their calculations led them to believe would lead to the Savior foretold in the Jewish prophetic writings.

In the western tradition, they went by the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and hailed originally from Persia, India, and Babylonia respectively. Some claim that they actually are meant to represent Europe, Asia, and Africa.

As the Magi neared the end of their long journey, possibly from a home base in the Parthian Empire, the three received word that King Herod, the ruler of Judea, wished an audience with them.

At this meeting, Herod asked that when the Magi found this newborn future “King of the Jews”, that they return and let him know the location of the child. Herod alleged that this was so that he too could go and worship the child. However, his later actions revealed that Herod was actually plotting to kill the child, thus defeating the prophecy and a snuff out a future threat to his rule.

The traditional date of the Epiphany within Christianity is January 6th. However, the Catholic Church celebrates on the Sunday falling between the 2nd and 8th. It is celebrated on other dates by other Christian churches.

When you sing or hear the Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas“, January 6th is that 12th day – exactly twelve days having passed since December 25th, Christmas Day.

The traditions and teachings hold that the Magi followed the star until it came to rest over the little town of Bethlehem in Judea. There, inside of what was essentially a cave-like shelter, lying in a manger, the Magi found the child.

Surrounded by the child’s parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as shepherds who had been visiting since the child’s birth, the wise men presented their gifts.

As pointed out in an article at The Telegraph, the gifts which the three Magi bore were each presented for a specific reason:

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

The realization, the moment of clarity, the “epiphany” experienced by the Magi had come with the revelation that this child, this Jesus born in such humble circumstances, was indeed the Savior of prophecy. And this Savior came not only to and for the Jewish people, but all people.

When they had completed their visit, the Magi decided not to return to their homeland by the same route which they had arrived. This would take them past Herod, whose true intentions had been revealed to them. And so they returned to their homes a different way.

It is important that we not only accept Jesus as our personal Savior, but that we do our best to practice that faith and pass it along to our families and other loved ones.

Even should they decide not to follow our example, it remains important to continue demonstrating our faith. At some point, we changed. We accepted Christ into our lives. Our continuing example could prove to be the very thing that opens the eyes, minds, and hearts of others.

This leads us to a final important point that Father Sean made in his sermon. Each of us, having had the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to us, should return to our lives in a different way than we traveled prior to that moment. That pivotal revelation marked our individual, personal epiphany.

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Oh Christmas tree

For many people the world over there will be a new addition to their homes in the coming days and weeks, if that addition has not already arrived. As homes are decorated for the season a large number of families will haul an evergreen tree inside, continuing the tradition of the Christmas tree. But what is the origin and meaning of this grand holiday tradition?

There are many people who will try to tell you that the tree goes all the way back to early pagan cultures, or to the ancient Druids, or to the Roman seasonal celebration known as Saturnalia. But in actuality the Christmas tree dates back to the early years of the 8th century and the life mission of a man born as Winfred in the year 672, but who has become known in history as Saint Boniface.

Winfred was born into a wealthy family, and had to overcome the protestations of his family when he received a calling and entered the Benedictine monastery in late 7th century England. In 802, he became an ordained priest and took the name Boniface, becoming a teacher. Years later, and after previous attempts, he undertook a mission to convert the people of Frisia, an early Germanic tribe that lived along the North Sea.

The Frisians had an ancient symbol known as Thor’s Oak which was dedicated to a pagan god. The location of this tree was the main point of veneration for the early Germanic people. In the year 723, Boniface approached this tree and stated his intention to chop it down, an attempt which the tribes believed would cause his death at Thor’s hands.

Boniface began to chop at the tree, calling on Thor to strike him down if the tree actually held any power or symbolism. As Boniface chopped a great wind came along and helped topple the massive tree. When the tree fell and no harm came to Boniface, the Germanic people began to believe him and thus began their conversion to Christianity.

There was a fir tree growing in the roots of the former oak, and legend has it that Boniface claimed this as a new symbol saying “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide.”

Subsequently the earliest actual references to a specific seasonal tree trace their roots to the Germanic people. Church records from the year 1539 at the Cathedral of Strasbourg mention the erection of a Christmas tree. Also during this time many guilds, or union houses, maintained a custom of preparing Christmas trees in front of their guild houses by decorating them with apples, dates, nuts, and paper flowers.

After hundreds of years as a custom in the Germanic towns, the Christmas tree slowly began to spread as a tradition into the more rural areas, ultimately moving into the aristocracy and spreading east into Russia, Austria, and into France by the mid-19th century. The British royal family also began to help celebrate the holiday season with a Christmas tree during this 19th century period.

During the 1850’s, a popular ladies journal in America known as ‘Godeys Ladies Book’ published a picture of a family gathered around a Christmas tree with presents laid underneath. By the end of the decade the picture and its popularity had caused the tradition to begin and spread in the United States. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become the norm here in America.

In its original tradition, the Christmas tree was brought into the home and setup with decorations on Christmas Eve, not to be taken down until after the traditional ’12th day’ on January 6th, which was the eve of the Epiphany, the day celebrating the ‘Magi’ or ‘Three Wise Men’ adoring the Christ child. It was the commercialization of the Christmas season that resulted ultimately in trees being erected at earlier points.

In celebrating the final Christmas of his life in 2004, Pope John Paul II spoke of the true meaning and purpose of the Christmas tree calling it “an ancient custom that exalts the value of life.” He pointed out that the evergreen remains unchanged throughout the harshness of winter, and further stated that it represents “the tree of life, a figure of Christ, God’s greatest gift to all men.”

In past years it had become a tradition in our own family that my family would get together with my brother Mike’s family and a few others. We would travel to the area around New Hope, Pennsylvania to a tree farm where we would select and cut down the tree for our respective families. We would then stop for a nice lunch or dinner on the ride home. We abandoned this long ride and tradition when our kids got older, but it remains a nice shared Christmas memory for our family.

My wife and I took part in this now wide-spread tradition in the way that has become customary in our home when we took a drive out yesterday and went to find our home Christmas tree. After making our selection with one of the many tree sales locations that spring up this time of year, we brought our tree home. We will put it up in it’s stand today in our living room, let it ‘settle’ for a day, and then begin to decorate it tomorrow night.

As we decorate we will play Christmas music, enveloping our living room in the Christmas season. And as we do so we will look on the beauty of its lights and decorations and ornaments and we will be reminded of the light and joy that was brought into our world with the birth of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. As you put up and admire your own Christmas tree this season, remember to consider that light of Christ, the true meaning of the tree and of Christmas itself.

The Gift

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It’s Christmastime once again. More specifically it is the final weekend before Christmas Day itself. This certainly means that over the next two days there will be a mad rush by many folks to complete shopping for their gift lists.

That perfume or pajamas for your wife, a book for your pop, a couple of gift cards for aunts and uncles, one more toy for the kids. For many (from what I hear) it will be one final attempt at picking up a “Wii” gaming system.

For the next two days it will most certainly seem in many respects as if it is, as Andy Williams famously sang, “the most wonderful time of the year.” There will be house parties among friends, relatives, and neighbors, Christmas carols will be heard from homes and cars, home light displays will be sparkling for longer hours.

For many it will be a weekend of anxiety. Worrying that you simply must complete your shopping. Worrying that you won’t have enough money to buy all the presents that you want. Worrying about the limits on your credit cards, and the balances in your bank accounts.

Whether you are reading this as the weekend begins, and I can help you right now, or sometime later when you can take this to heart for next year, stay with me a minute and let me try to help you out. Let me try to calm you down, straighten you out, ease your anxiety, and vastly improve your Christmas enjoyment.

Are you ready?

Stop buying everyone gifts.
Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop breaking the bank, running up your credit card balances. Stop taking money from your family’s bills and food tables because you feel that you need to go overboard on Christmas gift spending.

Trim the tree? How about we trim that gift-giving list down a bit?

Now, some folks are keen on saying that Christmas has become too commercialized. You know, I have been hearing that for so many decades now that it has lost all of it’s effectiveness as an argument. The fact is that gift-giving has been associated with the holiday ever since the very first one.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of how the Magi, three kings from the Orient, followed a star which led them to the little town of Bethlehem. There they found the newborn Jesus:

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

The commercialization of Christmas is linked to all kinds of other alleged evils: consumerism, greed, jealousy, the all-consuming fundamental of the American dream to “keep up with the Jones’s.”

Frankly, I think that all this concern over the commercialization of Christmas is just so much “humbug!”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying your wife a new car for Christmas. There is nothing wrong with buying your husband a season ticket package to the Phillies games for Christmas.

There is nothing wrong with buying your kids a Wii system and a bunch of games to go with it. There is nothing wrong with buying a present for every relative on some massive gift list.

To that end, there is also nothing wrong with advertisers trying to sell their wares. That is what capitalism is based upon, the market economy. Capitalism is not an evil, it is the tremendous engine that has given rise to America’s greatness. I would even dare to say that capitalism itself is a gift, from our nation’s historical roots to today’s society.

The problem is not in the lights, the packages and bows, the parties and presents. The problem is within ourselves. There is a large segment of our people, and in fact people around the world, who are so quick to blame other people for their own problems. To go back to my advice: stop.

Stop buying everyone gifts. Trim that list down, both in the number of people on it to begin with, and then in the number of gifts you give as well. I suggest strongly that you only give gifts to your immediate family: children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, spouses. One rule of thumb: if they live in your home, give them at least one gift.

One easy way to take care of everyone else is the traditional Christmas card. There are many options out there today, with boxed cards available on every level from the inexpensive to the lavish. Go with your economic situation, and every year go out and pickup a few dozen Christmas cards to send out.

A card can display your own reflection of the season. Are you more secular? Then send a general holiday card. More religious? Then send a religious-themed card. To really make your card a gift, for each one take the time to write a short note on the inside flap that is appropriate to the receiver. The cost of the card itself and the stamp to mail can usually be kept to about one dollar each. That is a pretty affordable gift.

For the folks who remain on your shopping list, narrow things down. Besides your kids and spouses, keep everyone to just one gift. These are the people closest to you in the world. You should know their likes and dislikes. Pick them up something they will really enjoy receiving.

As for the kids, make those Christmas memories special. Let them wake up to a lighted tree on Christmas morning,with wrapped gifts strewn beneath it. That’s important too, taking the time to wrap them. They key is to stay reasonably within your family’s means, and to spread gifts around evenly among multiple kids.

For your spouse there is one simple rule: make sure that whatever you do for them, large or small, that your gift or gifts reflects your appreciation for everything they are to you, for everything they do for your family.

It is a great idea for spouses to actually sit down and talk about Christmas as it approaches, and to get a plan together where perhaps limits are kept on their gifts to one another to allow more assets to reach the overall holiday experience.

The most important aspect of material gift-giving is that it must bring joy to the season. You are not bringing joy into the season for your family when you are spending money that you do not have.

Don’t give gifts beyond your means. Don’t put your family into debt that takes months to pay your way out of, year after year.

And there is another important thing to consider. Gifts do not need to actually cost you money out of your pocket.

There are three things that you can consider giving of yourself that usually won’t require a hit on your credit card. These are gifts of your time, your talent, and the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Give your time. Volunteer with a social services group that feeds the homeless. Join your church choir or volunteer to help in some other way with their preparation for the holidays. Go to the home of a relative who may be ill or who perhaps doesn’t have many close contacts, and help them out for a day, letting them know that they still have family, and that someone still cares about them.

Give your talent. Every one of us has something that we can do that is special and particular to us. If you have a professional skill, donate your skills to help an individual or group that could use them. Find a niche where you can utilize them each season as a regular gift that you give to your family and community. Draw cards for a senior citizen home, or go Christmas caroling. Everyone has talent to give.

Forgive and reconcile. I recently saw an episode of the “Dr. Phil” television show where the good doctor was trying to see if there was any way that he could help mediate a family where grown adults could not set their differences aside and simply enjoy one another’s company. In particular, in sharing the holidays together with their elderly father.

Dr. Phil’s advice in the end was to not try to force something at the holidays that was not there all year long. He said that the holidays were not the time to try to fix the problem.

I disagree with him. I think that the Christmas holiday is the exactly perfect time to forgive anyone, to set aside differences, and to celebrate those things we have in common, even if those things are few and as simple as blood relations.

My wife, Debbie Veasey and I were sitting around the television in the last few nights, and she turned to me and asked “Wouldn’t it be nice if we never had all of this to think about at Christmas? If people didn’t think about shopping and decorating, but just put their time and thoughts into celebrating the birth of Jesus?

She was dead-on straight in that assessment. It would be nice of more of the emphasis to the season were on “the reason”: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The celebration of the sacrifices made by our Virgin Mother, her sainted husband Joseph, and of God Himself in becoming man. But that choice is up to each of us, individually and as a family.

Buying gifts isn’t the evil. Commercialization isn’t the evil. The evil comes in bad choices by individuals, families, and communities.

Enjoy the holidays, and giving gifts when you can, within your means. But never forget the greatest gift of all, the gift that God game of Himself to all mankind. And then give of yourself when you can.

Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless you and yours this holiday season and in the new year to come.