Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Three Kings. (It ought to be on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but we move it because organizing solemnities is difficult in some places. Perhaps, like me, you are inclined to get annoyed about things like this. If so, join me in trying to be patient with our priests and bishops: unless you’ve lived their vocation, try not to complain. Meekness is good for us.)
We know the story of the kings. We can see the superficial similarities in the Old Testament readings: our reading from Isaiah says, “Caravans of camels shall fill you . . . bearing gold and frankincense”; our Psalm says, “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.” But what is this all about? And do these readings have more than a superficial connection to the birth of Christ?
There are hints to the deeper point in several places. Before the reading from Isaiah gets to the camels, it says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come. . . . Darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines. . . . Nations shall walk by your light.” Our story this week is about a light that shines forth from Jerusalem.
The theology shines out from the Psalm. “O God, with your judgment endow the king,” it begins. We come face to face with grace. The king is good – endowed also with “your justice,” so that “he shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with [good, divine] judgment” – because God has enlightened him.
There is a beautiful ambiguity about who, which king, this Psalm has in mind.
First, it seems to talk about the Messiah. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more. May he rule from sea to sea.” This is apocalyptic, the ultimate king. It is Jesus who is first anointed with the grace of divine wisdom.
But then it speaks of “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles . . . the kings of Arabia and Seba. . . . All kings. . . . all nations.” From Christ’s anointing flows ours. From his fullness of grace we receive. As he is anointed with divine wisdom, so are we. God is with us in the baby in the cradle – but God is with the kings, too, enlightening them to come find this baby.
The same theme rings out in our reading from Ephesians. First he speaks 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.” St. Paul has special knowledge – “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” He can write the Bible for us because he knows what others do not. We are illumined by his rays.
(In evening prayer we pray, from the same Ephesians, “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery.” Our reading today seems to explain why the tradition thinks St. Paul is speaking about himself here: God has given him the wisdom. He has special insight, special light – to enlighten us.)
The specific mystery Paul is discussing here, however, is the diffusion of this light: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body.” The Church gives us this reading for the Three Kings, first, because the Three Kings show that the revelation of Christ is not just for the Jews, but even for the Gentiles. With the Three Kings, all nations begin to stream into Jerusalem.
But this calling of the Gentiles is connected to Paul’s one calling. It is all about grace. Paul knows by grace, the Gentiles know by grace. It is not by family ties, not by human wisdom – it is by the light streaming out from Christ.
With this in mind, we can draw more from the Gospel. Most of the story is about King Herod. This is remarkable. He too is a king – but even better, he is a Jewish king, king of the Jews. He has the revelation – he has the books where “it has been written through the prophet” where to find the Messiah, the true king, “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
But he does not have the light. This king has not been endowed with God’s justice. Revelation is not just about having a book – a Bible, or a Catechism, or anything else, though those books to reflect some of the light shining from the faces of the apostles. We learn a lot from those books (as we are learning now from our Bible readings).
But we can only see if the light of Christ shines in our hearts. The true light is not a privilege of birth, not a matter of human power. The true light is the grace of Christ.
What part of your life could you see better if you let Jesus enlighten you?