Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, an ancient celebration of the Church in both the East and the West.
In the common use of the word, an epiphany is a sudden perception of absolute clarity, a moment at which some mystery becomes startlingly obvious. Whenever the Epiphany comes around, I always remember a scene from Hook, a great movie with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. Captain Hook’s somewhat dimwitted first mate Smee, played by Bob Hoskins, is staring out the window of the captain’s quarters, and he gets this wide-eyed look on his face and says, “I’ve just had… an apostrophe.”
Apostrophe, epiphany… close enough. Smee describes it as like lightening striking his brain. Suddenly he sees something in a flash that he didn’t grasp before. His mind takes ownership of something he perhaps had been told many times but never quite understood himself. In that way an apostrophe is like an epiphany. In our written language, an apostrophe represents ownership.
That’s what the Epiphany is about—suddenly seeing what was not apparent before; suddenly grasping a mystery that was beyond reach just moments ago. We come to own a truth of the faith that was previously beyond us.
As I mentioned, this feast day is an ancient observance in the Church. It first began in the 3rd century as a commemoration of the baptism of the Lord, which we now celebrate one week or an octave after the Epiphany. (My bad here, looks at the wrong dates in the planner. It’s Monday 1/9.) In the 4th century, it also came to be associated with the changing of water to wine at Cana, as well as the visit of the Magi. For the Western Church, it has been more closely associated with the visit of the Magi since that time. So we have these three events that are separated in time and seem at first glance to be completely unrelated. We have to delve a bit deeper to understand the ancient thinking on these three events.
By the way, I would recommend to all of you who want to understand better the roots of our Catholic faith to study the early Church Fathers. We have our traditions and our understanding through their thought and reflection on such events as this one. To be steeped in the thought of the Fathers of the Church is to have a true foundation in the Catholic faith.
That’s my little plug for the Patristic Tradition of the Church.
So how are these three events related? How do we tie them all to this notion of epiphany, of revelation? The word itself means “manifestation,” and Pope St. Leo I, one of the Fathers of the Church I just mentioned, clarified it a bit more and referred to the Theophany—the manifestation of God. In the Baptism of Jesus, God the Father Himself claims Jesus as His begotten son. In the Wedding at Cana, Jesus reveals Himself through the changing of water to wine. And in the visit of the Magi, God made flesh is revealed to the Gentiles.
Each of these events depicts the further manifestation of God, not in the veiled forms and words of the prophets and nature, but in His physical presence on earth, here with us. That is what His name Emmanuel means: God with us.
The earliest is the visit of the Magi. The wise men of the other nations—the pagan nations—recognize the arrival of the newborn king of the Jews. These wise men from the east are often associated with Persian astrologers, but some scholars now think that there was perhaps a bit more influence from the Jewish faith on the Persians. Recall that Israel was exiled to Babylon and dispersed for many years prior to the coming of Christ. They weren’t among ignorant people but civilized, advanced societies. It was a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who sent the dispersed Jews back to Jerusalem and who funded the rebuilding of the temple. No doubt the leaders of the Jewish people exchanged ideas with the learned of Persia. So it’s not hard to imagine that the scriptures of the Jews were known to some of them, and perhaps they developed their own understanding of God and His Messiah, His anointed one.
So following whatever sign they witnessed—a comet, an alignment of planets, or some other mysterious sign in the heavens—the Magi came bearing gifts and inquiring about the newborn king.
Let’s think about what this manifestation means to the Magi, to Herod, and then to us. The Magi travel most likely from Persia, a journey of more than 1000 miles on the routes of the time. They travel trusting the words of prophets from scripture, trusting that this sign will confirm a revelation. What is it they expect? Are they simply coming to pay their respects to royalty? Notice that the reading doesn’t say, “They bowed down and did obeisance to him,” which would be the expected behavior of visitors to a king. No, as Matthew says, “They fell down and worshipped Him.” Bowing down in obeisance is something someone does as an act of the will. But falling down in worship? That’s an intuitive, emotional response. They recognized something here greater than any earthly king. Something Divine, God’s anointed, was manifest, and they responded as anyone should who gets a mere glimpse of the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
Compare this to Herod’s response. While the non-Jewish Magi travel over a thousand miles, instigated by the appearance of a star, Herod—an Idumean and nominal convert to Judaism at best, lives a short walk from Bethlehem, less than six miles. He’s completely oblivious to the prophesies about the newborn king. And when he does learn of Him, he responds with little alacrity. He doesn’t get up and rush on to Bethlehem but sends the Magi on ahead. “You go on and then let me know where He is so I can see him later.”
That doesn’t sound like someone looking forward to the consolation of Israel. It sounds like someone who couldn’t care less. Or worse.
And it is worse, as we learn before the chapter is out. Herod sends his troops to slaughter all the newborn boys up to two years of age. So Herod’s seeming indifference is really much more malignant. He can’t even look on the newborn king himself. He sends others to destroy Him.
So there are the responses to the Epiphany: go searching far and wide for the anointed king, wave him off as something to be sought later, or seek to kill him and never look him in the face. Those are our choices.
What are we going to choose? The Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed has been revealed to us. How will we respond?
Some of us act as if there is no urgency, no immediate need to seek God, to seek repentance. We wave it off as if it’s something we can take care of later. Or perhaps we are unaware of our own need for salvation because we no longer have any sense of sin.
How many times have you heard people say, “Hey, I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anyone”?
That is not exactly setting the bar very high.
But that is exactly what most of us do. We look around at the obvious presence of God around us in the world and say, “Meh, it looks better in high definition.” We are so unimpressed with the beauty around us, so accustomed to comfort that we don’t see the miracle of natural design, of Divine intervention as the very fabric of our lives. That is why we need an Epiphany. We need to be slapped upside the head with the manifestation of God in the flesh.
So some of us wave off the Epiphany out of ignorance and apathy. But some of us resist it violently. The last thing we want is an Epiphany. We not only don’t feel the need to pursue truth, we want to ignore it, to deny it… to kill it.
That is Herod’s response. He sees the manifestation of God only in terms of his station, only in its temporal effects, only as a threat. So he doesn’t seek to face it or comprehend it. He wants to extinguish it.
But to those who are open to the mystery, the Epiphany is a wonder. It draws us in. We seek it, not out of duty, but out of love and awe. The pope, in his Epiphany homily on Friday, says that Magi represent all of those who long for God, those who have grown restless and are, in his words, rebelling against those forces of secularism that try to reduce and impoverish our lives.
It took courage to set out on a journey of a thousand miles. The Magi were willing to risk it for a glimpse of the new king. It took courage to follow Him during the early years when the Church faced intense persecution. What does it cost us today? What risks are we willing to face to look into the face of God?