Solemnity of the Epiphany - Sunday, January 5, 2014
The word “epiphany” means “to show forth.” Epiphanies, both large and small, tend to be private events- yet events with great significance for the public. Trying to share the details with another of an epiphany is fraught with complications. The words are never quite right, and even the most sympathetic listener cannot fully bridge the gap between description and what is was like being there. Most of us keep our personal experiences of the Holy to ourselves. Who would believe it? And who would really understand? The irony is that epiphanies are made for sharing, even as they are impossible to communicate fully.
Jesus is Messiah and Lord from the beginning
This is certainly the case of today’s extraordinary Gospel story for the solemn feast of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the feast par excellence of the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. Today the Church celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, and also commemorates two other important moments of public revelation of Jesus to the world: at his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.
The purpose of the whole magi story is clearly Christological. The foreigners are Gentiles, illustrating the universal breadth of the good news brought by the “king of the Jews.” They are people of good will, open to God, ready to hear and follow the call of God. They are people willing to follow a star, wherever it might lead. Open and starry-eyes, they are naive, guileless, easily taken-in by self-serving priests and murderous kings. They are romantic and lovable figures, pursing the truth and searching for a deep and abiding joy that the world cannot give.
A tragic, adult story
If we read Matthew’s Gospel story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story. Matthew’s shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. The future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles are retrojected (read back) into this scene of the narrative.
Matthew begins his story of the magi with the words: “In the days of King Herod…[2:1].” Herod reigned from 37 to 4 B.C. “Magi” was originally a designation of the Persian priestly caste, and the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. Matthew’s Magi are astrologers, searching the heavens for new signs and wonders.
Matthew draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “a star shall rise from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not a phenomenon of the distant heavens but the king himself. Unlike the poor shepherds, the Magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes!
The Magis’ coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming to Jesus means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
What does the story mean for us?
When we read the story of the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the newborn babies of Bethlehem — we are forced to ask ourselves whether the adult Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way. When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well. In remembering and reliving the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back. The experience of the Magi reminds us that all who make the tedious journey to the truth will finally encounter it and be changed in the process. They can never go back to a “business as usual” way of life. When we meet Christ and see who he really is, we will never be the same — and only then can we hope to begin to share in his mission.
The great English Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is associated more than anything else with his use of the word “joy.” It is interesting that he used it, not so much to describe his sense of the abiding presence of God, as to speak of the ongoing longing for God. The story of the Magi and the brightness of the star in the heavens evokes profound feelings despite the fact that, as with many other signs of the sacred, it runs the risk at times of being emptied of its meaning. The star we contemplate in the manger also speaks to the mind and heart of the men and women of our time. The journey of the Magi and the star speak to our secularized culture, awakening in our contemporaries the nostalgia of our condition as pilgrims in search of truth, of the absolute desire, and of a deep, abiding joy.
Speaking of joy, I encourage you to read section #123 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini about the “The word and joy.”
“…In God’s word, we too have heard, we too have seen and touched the Word of life. We have welcomed by grace the proclamation that eternal life has been revealed, and thus we have come to acknowledge our fellowship with one another, with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and with all those who throughout the world hear the word, celebrate the Eucharist and by their lives bear witness to charity. This proclamation has been shared with us – the Apostle John reminds us – so that “our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:4).
“The synodal assembly enabled us to experience all that Saint John speaks of: the proclamation of the word creates communion and brings about joy. This is a profound joy which has its origin in the very heart of the trinitarian life and which is communicated to us in the Son. This joy is an ineffable gift which the world cannot give. Celebrations can be organized, but not joy. According to the Scripture, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22) who enables us to enter into the word and enables the divine word to enter into us and to bear fruit for eternal life. By proclaiming God’s word in the power of the Holy Spirit, we also wish to share the source of true joy, not a superficial and fleeting joy, but the joy born of the awareness that the Lord Jesus alone has words of everlasting life (cf. Jn 6:68).”
The true work of Christmas
In the end, the Magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore, as did those foreign seekers long ago in Bethlehem.
If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way — rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onwards, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love and peace.
Today we can truly exclaim, with deep and abiding joy: Lord, every nation on earth will adore you! This poem from the Shaker tradition illustrates what the real work of Christmas and of Christ is all about:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings are back home,
When the shepherds are once more with their flocks,
When Simeon and Anna have gone to their Master in peace,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To release the prisoners, to rebuild nations,
To bring peace to all people,
To make music in the heart. Amen.
[The readings for the Solemnity of the Epiphany are: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; and Matthew 2:1-12.]
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.