The Arrival of the Magi, The Bladelin Altarpiece, right panel,
Painted by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464),
Painted circa 1450,
Oil on panel
© Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
The Epiphany of the Lord
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
Reflection on the Painting
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. We are in the depths of winter and its dark days. Yet today is a feast of light. The word ‘Epiphany’ means a moment in which we suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. The light has come into the darkness and revealed the essential nature of Christ.
The magi are the prime examples of people who search for the light and for things to be revealed to them. They travelled on long journeys to get close to baby Jesus… and they eventually got there. They thus infuse us with hope as we continue on our journeys (often long, winding and hard) to get closer to Christ. And what drove them to keep going? A simple question at the beginning of our reading: ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’. This is the question that pushed them along. We ask ourselves the same question in our spiritual lives: where can we find Jesus? This question helps us to delve deeper into our souls and find Jesus all around us.
Just as the star guided the magi towards Bethlehem, so God puts people on our path to be the stars in our own lives, pointing us towards God. These friends we have are important and we should surround ourselves with such people. They are our our congregation, our fellow charity workers, our teachers, colleagues, nurses, priests, etc… these are the stars who help us draw nearer to God.
Our painting from circa 1450 is the right hand panel of the Bladelin altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. It shows the three Magi kneeling, facing towards the central panel where the birth of Jesus is depicted. The star with baby Jesus at the centre is what led them there. Jesus is seen pointing to heaven with one hand, and to earth with the other. The treasures each of the magi brought to Jesus were not as precious as what they received from Jesus. Their encounter with baby Jesus changed them forever. Any genuine encounter with the Lord will always change us in some major way.
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