Epiphany: Shine, Jesus, shine!

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Epiphany of the Lord: Jan. 5, 2014
Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Matt 2:1-12

The event that we celebrate today is certainly very picturesque. These three exotic figures—the Magi, who we sometimes call the Three Kings or the Wise Men—arrive in Bethlehem. They find the Christ child and kneel down, and they offer him their gifts, which are precious and just as exotic as they are: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is a scene that we like to imagine and sing about, and to make into paintings and statues in the Nativity Scene. And in many countries, appropriately, it is this day that has traditionally be the day of giving gifts, in imitation of the Magi giving gifts to the baby Jesus.

But as picturesque as this scene is, there is much more to see. We note that officially we do not call this day “Three Kings Day,” but rather “Epiphany”: a word that is a synonym of “revelation” or “manifestation.” Something that had been hidden is being revealed, shown, put right out there, in front of someone else’s eyes; and especially the truth about someone, some divine figure, is being revealed. In this case, it is the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles—to the many nations outside of the People of Israel.

To grasp the significance of this, we need some historical context. From the very beginning, from the very moment after the first sin, God had the intention to redeem the world; and of course he intended to redeem the whole world, all peoples. But the way he would do it would be to start with one man, Abraham; and his one family, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob and all the descendants who came from him; who would form the one chosen People of Israel. God would save the whole world, but it would be by means of focusing upon this one People: revealing himself to them, teaching them his will, changing them, helping them to know how to live in relationship with him. Theirs were the knowledge and worship of the true God, the covenant with him, the promises he made, the hope of salvation.

So one might suppose that this Chosen People would be very missionary-minded. But that isn’t how it turned out during most of the Old Testament. They were surrounded by all the other nations of the world—some neighbors, like the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites; some great empires, like Egypt and Assyria and Babylon. All of them were covered in the darkness of not knowing the true God. But what was their relationship? So often it was one of tension and danger.

  • These nations often constituted a political threat, as they might go to war over land or natural resources or honor.
  • And, even more, they often posed a religious seduction, as they might pull members of the People of Israel away into worshiping idols, false gods.

The first thing that Israel had to do was to defend itself and its identity against these external threats. But, as they held onto the revelation that they had received, too often this became an exclusion of others, falling into the mistake of ethnic separation rather than a passing on of the good news. By the centuries before Christ, especially as Jewish communities and synagogues were established in many parts of the Mediterranean, there was some spreading of this revelation and some response from those around them. But it was slow going.

What a change, then, when the Magi showed up in Jerusalem seeking the newborn king of the Jews! It was just as Isaiah had prophesied in the first reading: members of these other nations had themselves come, asking to know the Lord; and bringing with them rich gifts.

For what did this show? That the Lord himself was acting directly, and in a new way, to reveal himself to these nations. That name “Magi” designated a caste of Persian priests, skilled in the interpretation of dreams, and associated with magic and astrology. They were, we might say, among the scientists of the time—seeking and learning the systematic knowledge that was available to them. And the Lord reached out directly to them in a way that they could perceive and respond to, in the Star of Bethlehem. How amazing! It was truly a new beginning.

And so what does this mean to us?

First, it is a day to celebrate and give thanks.

  • For, whatever country each of us may come from, there was a first moment when someone from that country heard the Gospel, learned of Jesus Christ, and responded in faith.
  • Whatever family each of us comes from, there was some ancestor who was the first to enter the Church and receive the grace that Christ wanted to give him or her.
  • And, indeed, in each of our lives, we can look back on past moments when we, too—you and I—glimpsed the light of Christ more brightly and responded to him in a new way.

Today is a day to celebrate all of these. For the persons of the Magi, as the firstfruits of the Gentiles, represent that first person in our nation, that first ancestor, that first time that we ourselves heard and responded to Christ’s revelation of himself.

Second, it is a day for hope. For perhaps each one of us knows various persons around us who are still in the darkness of not knowing Christ. They could be members of our families, or friends, or neighbors, or co-workers, or classmates. We might see that they need his truth, his healing, his change; and maybe we wonder whether they will ever see his light. This feast of the Epiphany reminds us that, if God can reach out and reveal himself to the Magi, he can do so to anyone, including these friends that we know. He can do this directly, but often he chooses to use human means, perhaps from many different people, coordinating it all: so that, as St. Paul wrote (1 Cor 3:6), St. Paul might plant, Apollos might water, but it is God who coordinates it all to bring the plant from beginning to completion.

And the light that Christ wants to shine upon your friend may well come from you. We remember that Christ told us, “You are the light of the world.” And he has placed his light in you: in your heart, in your mind, on your lips, in your eyes, and in your hands as they reach out to help in love. You might not see it, but others can! And we remember that Christ explained that people do not “light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matt 5:14-16) In just this way, Christ can shine his light through you to reveal himself to your friend now in darkness.

So today is a today to rejoice and give thanks for the light that we have received. And it is a day to pray in hope, asking the Lord that we might share that light with others—so that together we may walk all the way to the brilliance of the heavenly kingdom.

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