Meditating The Epiphany of Our Lord
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The Epiphany of Our Lord

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, "You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy."
 Luke 3:21-22

 I want to spend one more day reflecting on the baptism of Jesus because millions of Christians focus on this historical event today. January 6 is the Christian holiday of Epiphany. The word "Epiphany" comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means "appearing" or "manifestation." In Western Christian tradition (Roman Catholic and Protestant), Epiphany is a day to remember the visit of the Magi to Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Among Eastern Orthodox Christians, the sixth of January is a day to recall the baptism of Jesus. Both Western and Eastern celebrations of Epiphany focus on the "appearing" of God in Jesus Christ.

 The visit of the Wise Men symbolizes the appearing of the Savior to the Gentiles in particular. The baptism of Jesus was his public manifestation as the Son of God. The title "Son of God" in Jewish was a royal one, reserved for the king of Israel (see Psalm 2, for example). Yet Jesus was the Son of God, not only because of his unique Messianic calling, but also because of his unique relationship with God the Father.

 On the holiday of Epiphany, it is appropriate for us to consider how God makes himself known in the world today. To be sure, the heavens declare God's glory and the Scripture encapsulates his truth. But God has chosen to manifest himself today largely through his people, through you and me, and through all of those who are his followers. It's hard to imagine a higher calling than this one: to make the truth and love of God known in the world today.

 How can we do this? Most of us will not be called to the particular ministry of evangelism. We won't be preaching revivals or filling stadiums. Yet we can communicate the good news by the things we say and the way we live each day. Since the core of the gospel is a story of God's grace, we can illustrate this story by treating others graciously, whether at work or at home. And since the good news centers in the love of God, our love for others will help them to understand and receive this love.

 Today, as we celebrate Jesus who came as the light of the world, may we also remember his words in the Sermon on the Mount: "You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father."

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When you picture the baptism of Jesus, what thoughts or feelings come to mind? How has God made himself known to you? How might you be a reflection of God's light in the places you live and work?

PRAYER:
All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because you are the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Israel and, indeed, the whole world.

 All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because you are the unique Son of God, beloved by the Father, the one in whom he delights.

 All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because you are the light of the Lord, the one who radiates with divine truth and love.

 All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because you have called me to be light in this world, to shine your light through my works and words.

 All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, whom I worship today as God in the flesh, and whom I serve with my whole life. Amen.


The feast of the Epiphany, as we presently understand it—the adoration of the Magi—is found very early in Gaul, where it probably predates Christmas.  The Council of Saragossa in 380 decreed a three-week fast before Epiphany.  The feast existed in North Africa in the time of Augustine.  Several of Leo the Great's sermons witness to the feast's observance in Rome.  The principal object in the Roman liturgy is the adoration of the Magi.

 However, the feast of the Epiphany most certainly originated in the East, where it is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria.  It may have been assigned its date in reference to a pagan feast.  In the Egyptian calendar, the winter solstice and the feast of the Sun-god were observed on January 6.  On the previous night, pagans of Alexandria commemorated the birth of their god Aeon, supposedly born of a virgin.  It was also believed that the waters of rivers, especially the Nile, acquired miraculous powers and even turned into wine on this night.

 This may be a partial explanation, why it is difficult to circumscribe the original object of this feast in the East.  By the fourth century Epiphany could embrace the birth of Christ, His baptism, the adoration of the Magi, and the miracle at Cana.  According to some liturgists (cf. C. Mohrmann), Epiphany was an idea feast (as opposed to an event feast) from the beginning and admitted any manifestation of the divine power of Christ. As a matter of fact, in classical Greek epiphany and theophany designate the manifestation of a divinity and, later, important events in the life of a king.  Epiphany is first used in a Christian sense by St. Paul for both the first and the final comings of Christ (Ti 2.11,13).  The word epiphany was soon used to describe the miracles of Christ as manifestations of divine power.

 St. John Chrysostom explains the eastern meaning of Epiphany with these words: "We give the name Epiphany to the Lord's baptism because he was not made manifest to all when he was born, but only when he was baptized, for until that time he was unknown to the people at large."  In similar fashion, St. Jerome, drawing upon his Palestine experience, declares that the idea of showing forth (Epiphany) belonged not to the birth in the flesh, for then he was hidden and not revealed, but rather to the baptism in the Jordan, when the heavens were opened upon Christ.

 According to oriental ideas it was through the divine pronouncement "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased," that the Savior was first manifested to the great world of unbelievers.  The western tradition of this feast lies more along the line of what we are used to call fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).  There is no overwhelming Epiphany or divine manifestation on the path of the Magi.  The Magi were wise men who saw the star and its unusual brightness.  Steadfast in the resolution of following the divine call and fearless of danger, they traveled, inquired, explored, and let themselves be conducted by the star to the place where they were to see and worship their Savior.  But again, no divine pronouncement thundering from open skies, only a poor babe in a manger.  As St. Leo the Great put it, "When a star had conducted them to worship Jesus, they did not find him commanding devils or raising the dead or restoring sight to the blind or speech to the dumb, or employed in any divine action; but a silent babe, dependent upon a mother's care, giving no sign of power but exhibiting a miracle of humility."

 Eastern theology has always been eschatological in thrust, eager and anxious to show the unabridged Godhead in all its splendor and majesty, beyond and in spite of its manifestation in human condition and according to human categories.  Western theology in turn develops according to a different religious sensitivity: it is more incarnational, amazed by and preoccupied with the miracle of humility, God's being in the flesh and becoming one of us.  The spirituality of the East is a spirituality of vision, based on "ta phota" (what is visible) or illumination, the Jordan experience; the spirituality of the West is the spirituality of journey, originating in God's call and transformative power, it is the "Magi-experience."

 Yet, both traditions are but two different and complementary facets of the same reality, just as ear and eye are dependent on and complement each other.  In a similar way, the Feast of the Epiphany manifests the comprehensive reality of God's encounter with humanity: it shows not only God's self-giving presence in the miracle of humility, but also his authoritative self-disclosure at the baptism of Christ. Epiphany manifests not only God's gratuitous and hidden presence to us, it also reminds us of our personal and active role in this encounter with God, made explicit through the acts and gestures of the Magi.

 The Magi offer to Jesus as a token of homage the richest products their countries afforded - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Gold, as an acknowledgment of Christ's regal power; incense, as a confession of his Godhead; and myrrh, as a testimony that he has become man for the redemption of the world.  But even more important than gold, frankincense and myrrh were the dispositions the Magi cherished in their souls: their fervent charity, signified by gold; their devotion, figured by frankincense; and their unreserved sacrifice of themselves, represented by myrrh.

 In the Middle Ages it was customary on this day (January 6) to bless homes with the newly-blessed water, and with incense.  Later the initials of the names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar) were written with blessed chalk on or above the doors of homes.  CMB stands also for Christus, Manisionem, Benedocal (May Christ bless this home).  May these initials be carved on the doors to our spiritual homes, too, as a reminder, that each one of us is called upon by God's Epiphany to the world to assume a threefold role: that of the child, the disciple and the steward.
•As a child we receive and cherish God's Epiphany to us;
•As a disciple we follow God's call to crib and cross; and
•  As steward we are accountable to God and the world of what we did to his Epiphany, understood as vision and journey.

 

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, the nations, and their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they see, and the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod and their ultimate rejection of him in favor Christ.

In this meditation I would like especially to follow these wise men in their journey of faith. We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star, to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story serve ultimately to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey to Jesus, let’s walk the way of the wise men.

Stage 1. CALL - The text says – When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” – Notice first the identity of these individuals. They are called Magi, (µ????, (magoi)  in Greek) and they are from the East.

Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. Perhaps they are wise men, perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as Kings though the text does not call them that. It also seems Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern Kingdom. In our imagination we often think of them as Kings since Psalm 72, read in today’s Mass, speaks of “Kings” coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s gospel does not call them kings, but “magi.”

Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going out to all the world.

St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.

And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture, but more usually, it is first someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2. CONSTANCY - Upon their arrival in Jerusalem the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning King, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. It must have seemed probable to them that the newborn King would be related to the current King, so his surprise may have confused them. But Herod seems more than surprised, he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah! So the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting!

But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (e.g. Herod and his court), are wakeful, and the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi. Perhaps it occurred to them to suspend their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this birth, and those who did, seemed little interested.

Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up!

Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy and others, who should have led them joyfully to Jesus, were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church, despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

Stage 3. CONFESSION OF FAITH – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. – With what little information they have they set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable but it seems not. Mary (Joseph) and Jesus are found now in a house. It would seem that decent lodging has now been found. Has it been days since the birth? Perhaps even longer, but we are likely dealing with a different day than Christmas Day.

Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is p??se????sa? (prosekunesan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration.

This is no mere homage or a sign of respect to an earthly King, this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith!

But is it a real faith, or just a perfunctory observance? It’s not enough to answer an altar call, or to get baptized. Faith is never alone. It is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So lets look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4. COST - There is a cost to discipleship. The magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. And they are costly gifts.

Gold is a symbol of all our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense. is the gift of worship, for in the Bible incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (eg. psalm 141). In laying down this gift we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life. To be in his holy house each Sunday and render him the praise and worship he is due. To listen to his word and to consent to be fed the Eucharist by him. To worship him worthily by frequent confession and to praise him at all times. And they give

Myrrh - a strange gift for an infant. Myrrh is usually understood as burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, my life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will. So here are gifts that are highly symbolic.

The magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts so too are we.

Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here then is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get happy in Church, we have to obey. Hence, these wise men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction, they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in a possibly perfunctory worship, they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what he tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the wise men went home by another route they were singing a Gospel song: “It’s a highway to heaven! None can walk up there but the pure in heart. I walking up the King’s Highway. If you’re not walking start while I’m talking. There’ll be a blessing you’ll be possessing, walking up the King’s Highway. “