David A. Cregan, O.S.A.
Isa 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-2; 7-8; 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3:2-3, 5-6
Matt 2: 1-12
The liturgy of the word for the Solemnity of the Epiphany begins with the reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading begins, “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.”
Isaiah begins with an uplifting proclamation that ends in an exclamation point, indicating an intensity of emotion and a loudness of voice, as he calls out in joy to the people of Jerusalem to rise up in splendor. The use of this exclamation is apropos in this Christmastime as we celebrate God with us! Solemnity of the Epiphany deepens our understanding of the incarnation. The origin of the word epiphany takes its meaning from the Greek word epiphania which, in its original context, means the visit of a god to earth. For us this visitation is the manifestation of God Himself in the divine person of Jesus. While Christmas gives us an intimate reflection of the profound humanity of Jesus through the nativity, the Epiphany allows us to glimpse the divinity of Christ shining through the compassionate and humble humanity he has just taken on as he empties himself to be with us. No wonder the church chooses this first reading from the prophet Isaiah crying out in a loud voice, rejoice! For nothing so great has ever happened on earth as Emanuel, God with us! And those of us who live by faith can testify to the proof of his presence in our midst here and now!
While this feast originated in the Eastern tradition as the baptism of Christ, in the West we associate this Solemnity primarily with the three kings, or the magi, bearing gifts in adoration of the child lying in the manger. The definition of the word epiphany is nuanced through the perspective of these three spiritual men in search of God, for to them the epiphany is a revelation of something of great cosmological and divine importance for all people. Through the conflation of many of the traditions of the Epiphany celebrated by Christians around the world, we experience a depth of theological revelation that invites us to recognize that Christ has come into the world, and that he is to be the light that will draw us out of darkness and into a life of spiritual hope, faith, and expectation. In the Western church the magi represent the reality that the sacrifice of Jesus was not just for the ancient Jews but is, in fact, for the whole world.
The voice of the prophet Isaiah travels through the history of the faith of our church, guiding us towards the profound experience that we who dedicate ourselves to prayer and faith have of living a life ever closer to Christ. For we are a chosen people whom God Himself has selected to remain close to, despite our faults and failings. Consequently, the words of the prophet Isaiah continue, “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the seas shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of the nations shall be brought to you”. During this season of grace, this Christmas season, we have had our hearts stirred by the great love that we experience in the goodness and the graciousness of the light of God that illuminates our families, our hearts, and souls of all the faithful.
Today we have an opportunity to reflect on the immense impact this event that took place
2000 years ago continues to have on our lives, here and now. How many countless men and women over the years have found the courage to rise up as the voice of Jesus reaches out to them, giving them courage, bearing forgiveness in the face of brokenness, and providing hope when faced with a difficult challenges? God with us is continually inspiring us, lifting our hearts, minds and voices in prayer, and thus giving meaning to all of the joys and the hardships of our lives. As the magi move towards the child in the manager the church celebrates the redeeming miracle of God’s compassionate care for the whole world. Thus today, we praise God for the abundance of his care for all people, and the concomitant strength that love brings to people who rise up in faith and journey towards the Truth and the Light, Jesus Christ.
There is a rich and exotic quality to the narrative in the Gospel reading today from Matthew. Mapping it out as a journey of longing and intrigue is exciting enough in itself, let alone the rich and diverse characters that populate this world of individuals being drawn towards the light of Christ which has been brought into the world. Herod rises up in anxiety because he wants a piece of that light. Not to bring goodness into the world, but instead to help secure his own individual power over the power of God. The magi rise up, lifting their eyes towards heaven to follow the rising star of Christ, for very different reasons. They go not to assert themselves, for as earthly Kings they certainly have the right to dominion, but instead to advance the glory of God. When they rose up they did so in order to discover this wonder of heaven coming to earth, and to do it homage by offering what was precious. They emptied themselves of whatever earthly power they had and they prostrated themselves before him and did him homage. Matthew goes on to describe how they “opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” After emptying themselves the evangelist tells us “and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
Here lies a kernel of wisdom that may encourage us on our spiritual journey today.
By the grace of God, and the guidance of the church through the scripture and the sacraments, we are similarly called to rise up and journey towards Christ. As we strive to arrive, we struggle to turn over whatever gifts we have to the work of God in our families, in our workplace, in the classroom, in our neighborhoods, and in our day-to-day living. But this grace can never be simply for our own edification, but must always advance the kingdom of God through our own vocation to a life in Christ. We are compelled to continually be changed by seeking and finding Jesus. When we rise up to Christ, and experience the graces that we faithful regularly experience by his love and intimate presence in our lives, we, like the magi, are also called to ‘return home another way’. Here lies the precious wisdom that is so important for the times in which we are living: The voices of this world want us to be a little bit more like King Herod, defensive, frightened, and angry. Many of those voices in our culture and in our society are crying out to us to close our treasures, and to be hostile towards those who may need us to be like Christ to them in the times that we are living: the poor, the broken, the immigrant, or the refugee. Sure, it is frightening and a risk to do so. But ours is a tradition of saying yes when others would probably have said no: Abraham to Yahweh; Mary to the Angel; Mother Teresa to the poor; Archbishop Romero to the marginalized; and countless other women and men who have raised their eyes to follow the light of Christ and been courageous in generosity, in love, in commitment, in mercy.
In dark and defensive times like the ones we are living in we pray that we can follow the star towards the light and become the voice of tenderness that is at the heart of what God has done for us at Christmas. God had the courage to enter this world as a vulnerable and tender baby in order to bring forgiveness, hope and transformation. There were no limits on his yes to us, no fear, no anger. This is his light for us, and for the whole world.
What will be your Epiphany this season, and by what new way is God asking you to return home?