“We three kings of orient are . . .”

The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses. Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6

Brothers and sisters: You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation. It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 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; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” 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.” After their audience with the king they set out. 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 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

We three kings of orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain
Following yonder star.

Hello, a wish of peace and joy to everyone on this first Sunday of the New Year 2019. We are the famous “three kings”. Of all the evangelists, only Matthew relates the story of our visitation to the infant Jesus. Strangely enough, Matthew never said there were three of us and he called us wise men (magi in Greek) not kings. We guess it was those three distinct gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) that gave rise to the tradition of the number of us bringing them and our status as kings. Honestly, these were precious items back in those days.

So who are we? Though Matthew chose not to reveal us in details, many probably have some ideas of who we are. Most of the people refer us as astrologers, specialists who study astrological phenomena and interpret signs of unusual astral occurrences. Where do we come from? The well-known Christmas carol said we are from the Orient while Matthew said the East (rf Mt 2:1). What Matthew meant is that we are from places east of Palestine, not from countries in eastern Asia to which the word Orient commonly refers. But the carol does depict something true, that is, we came from afar, bearing much hardships and facing many geographical challenges. How long? Frankly, we lost count of the days for we often travelled by night and you know how camels walk. All we focused on was following the star, longing to see the true King as soon as possible.

We know that our mysterious background and our appearance in the nativity of Jesus has prompted curiosity and speculations; such that our visit has become more like a legend than true story. But we want you to understand that it is our role in Matthew’s Gospel that should take precedence, not its authenticity. Why? You see, we are pagan Gentiles, yet the God of Israel had chosen us to fulfill the Hebrew Scripture of a Jewish messianic prophecy (rf Isaiah 60:1-6, Nm 24:17, Ps 72:10). What is so significant about that? Well, the religious message is groundbreaking. To our knowledge, the Jews always believe that they are exclusively favoured by their God and thus they are the only people who are saved. But Matthew, in tracing Jesus’ descent at the beginning of his Gospel, wants to prove that first, He is the son of David in whom God’s promise of a messianic King was realized (rf 2 Sm 7: 12-16). Secondly, that He is the “seed of Abraham” (Gal 3:16) through whom the divine blessings come to “all the nations of the earth” (Gn 12:3). So the new born infant is not just Israel’s king but also our king, possessing authority over all nations. Salvation is thus not limited to the Jews but to all. In addition to such an incredible but good news, Matthew wants to contrast Israel’s infidelity with the faith of pagans. Though the Jews possessed the Scripture, it is we, through natural science, discovered by faith what Herod and the religious leaders of Judaism missed.

The significance of our role does not end with the infancy episode. Over the centuries, many who read of this story crowned us with the virtues of faith, courage, perseverance, humility etc. Not only that, they saw us as representatives of all the nations. But to us, it is the experience that we treasure. The experience that we want to share with you and everyone – the experience of encountering the infant King and His family. Their love, peace and holiness had transformed us from star gazers to God worshippers, from idolaters to believers of the true Faith and from sinners to followers of the true Light.

So next time, when you are singing the carol or enjoying the Christmas play of the three kings or admiring the nativity display in which we are with the shepherds and the animals, think not about us but the good news which the infant Jesus has brought. Immerse yourself in His love, the love of the Incarnate Son whom the Father sent to dwell among us and – let yourself be transformed too . . . “Guide us to Thy perfect light”.

Posted: January 6, 2019

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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