The Epiphany of the Lord (Year B, 6 January 2019)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the Epiphany. In the eyes of the commercial world, the celebration of the feast of Christmas is simply over, given that work and schools have resumed. But this is not the case with the church. The Christmas season continues today with the celebration of the feast of Epiphany: the manifestation of Jesus to the pagan world. Today, Jesus reveals himself to non-believers. This is the second phase of the Christmas season. Next Sunday, we shall be celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This will be the conclusion of the Christmas season.
At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ who is TRUE GOD AND TRUE MAN. On New Year’s Day, we celebrate the mystery of Jesus, born of Mary, yet he is the SON OF GOD. The Jesus, is truly the SON OF GOD AND SON OF MARY. Today, on the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the truth that this Jesus is THE KING AND THE LIGHT TO ALL NATIONS, not only to the people of Israel. Here, we recall the prophesy of Simeon about the child Jesus: “Lord, not let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:29-32) Of Him, the prophet Isaiah says in the 1st reading of today: “Above you the Lord now rises and above you his glory appears. The nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness.” (Is 60:2-3)
The word Epiphany, from its Greek origin means manifestation or appearance. It is derived from a verb meaning “to appear”. In the book of 2 Maccabees, the word is used of a manifestation of the God of Israel (2 Maccabees 15:27). In the New Testament the word is used in 2 Timothy 1:10 to refer either to the birth of Christ or to his appearance after his resurrection. It is also used five times to refer to the Second Coming of Christ.
As we can see in the gospel reading above, the visit of the magi takes center stage in today’s liturgy of the word. We shall, therefore, concentrate on this aspect of the text. This gospel text is a prophetic narrative that anticipates the future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles, people considered to be outside the nation of Israel.
In oriental literature, a magus is “an oriental priest learned in the esoteric arts including astrology and the interpretation of dreams.” In view of his in-depth knowledge in astrology and dream interpretation he was also considered to be a “wise man”. As we can see in Matthew 2:1, the astrological aspect of the magi is highlighted. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Mt 1:2)
In Old Testament times the idea of the Jews as God’s Chosen people was interpreted in a way that involved second-class status, and sometimes even rejection of all the other peoples. The concept of divine election fundamentally differentiated the Jew from the Gentile. The Jews believed that it was quite impossible to be holy outside Judaism. As a Jew the individual was a member of the “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The magi were fundamentally Gentiles. As Gentiles, they belonged to the pagan world and so they were outside the covenant society. They were seen as pariah and strangers to the Jewish covenant. To remain outside Judaism, as was the case with these magi who came to visit Jesus, was to remain outside the fountain of holiness.
This is the central point addressed in the gospel of today. Accordingly, the visit of the magi is the visit of the non-holy to the Holy. This feast shows that election by God was not just a privilege for the Jews but a hope for all. God broke down this barrier and manifested himself to the pagan world because salvation is also for them. The doors were also opened for them to visit the Messiah of the world. The epiphany replicates the situation at incarnation where there was an encounter between the Holy and the non-holy.
We are also called to be open to others, especially the vulnerable and fallen in our society. Pope Francis recently said: A Church which “goes forth” is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way. At times we have to be like the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his door open so that when the son returns, he can readily pass through it (Evangelii Gaudium 46).
This is what Jesus did today in the narrative of the magi. He opened his doors so that they could come in. Hence, Jesus also believed that his mission was not restricted to the Jewish nation alone. This was why he ordered his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Mat 28:19). And you cannot fulfill the mandate of Jesus with closed doors, or a separatist attitude. As we can see, the biblical theological implication of the magi’s visit is very profound. They are comparable to the atheists of whom Pope Francis said, “There are also good atheists.”
The feast of the Epiphany has parallels with the incarnation, at Christmas. As we saw in our commentary on Christmas day, the Most Perfect God condescended to take up an imperfect human nature. Similarly, today, this same Most Perfect God chose to manifest himself to the unbelieving pagan world. Each time, this contact is with an imperfect situation. Both the incarnation and the Epiphany remind us that though we have a Perfect God, we do not have a Perfectionist God, who insists on our being perfect before he could encounter us. Instead, he is a “ritual detergent” that cleanses every dirty contact. In the incarnation and in the Epiphany, God encounters us as we are. He deals with your children as they are and not as you would have wanted them to be; this permeates all levels of relationships.
So far, with God’s initiative to manifest himself to us! What is our own response? The magi recognized Jesus as the true Star of Christmas. They came to Him and worshipped him. Since this is also our goal we can learn some things from them
- THEY WERE PAYING ATTENTION
Ironically, the Jews who had for many years announced that they were awaiting the Messiah, were oblivious to His coming. They, “God’s chosen People” missed the signs. Their religious experts, the theologians, and the devout missed it. These “foreigners” however, saw, understood and responded. We too can be so wrapped up in the trappings of the season that we miss the Christ-child. We can be so familiar with the events and traditions of Christmas that we never really give time to think about the events in Bethlehem. If we look around attentively, we will realize how desperately our world needs the message Jesus brings. We will realize how much we personally need a Savior, companion and friend. The message of Christmas is not just a nice story. It is a message and an event we need to pay attention to.
- THEY WERE ACTIVE RATHER THAN PASSIVE
When the magi observed the star, they did not sit down and write a book about their experience. They packed up and headed off to find this newborn King so that they might honor and worship Him. When they reached Israel they inquired about where the Messiah was to be born. When they received an answer they continued until they arrived at Bethlehem where they worshipped and presented their gifts. They were not content to have information. They insisted on having a personal encounter with this King. They didn’t wait passively. They actively sought for the King. In the same way, we cannot simply wait for the Christ. We need to bring ourselves to him.
- THEY RESISTED THE INEVITABLE DISTRACTIONS
The Magi certainly had many distractions. They had the distraction of a long and arduous journey. Imagine how many times they might have thought about turning back. Think of how often they wondered if it was going to be “worth it”. But they kept going. Satan is certainly a common companion of anyone who would like see Jesus. The Devil’s goal is to distract you and turn you from your pursuit of Christ. Hold firm!
When they magi finally found the Christ-child, they had a lot to do.
- a) They rejoiced when they again saw the star leading them to Jesus (v.10).
They knew they were on the right course. When they saw Jesus, and came into His presence they knew they had found the one they had been looking for all their lives. They discovered joy. When you read the story of the Shepherds you see the same thing. They were filled with joy after seeing Christ. The same can be for us. Jesus brings the forgiveness we thought was not possible. He is the one who gives the hope you thought didn’t exist. He is the one who fills the empty and lonely heart. He is the one who affirms the value of those who think they are worthless. He is the one who brings life beyond the grave. His arms are open. He invites you to come to Him. And if you do, you too will find the one you’ve been looking for all your life.
- b) They worshipped. (v. 11) This doesn’t mean they sang a couple of hymns. Neither does it mean they sang a chorus over and over again. It means they quietly honored the Christ-child. They opened their hearts to Him. They presented Him gifts and they also presented themselves. Worship is acknowledging Him as someone unique, special, powerful.
- c) They went home a different way. (v. 12) The Magi returned to their home by a different route. If you remember the story, they were supposed to return and make a report to Herod. But after meeting Jesus the angel informed them of Herod’s desire to kill this baby. They changed their course. People who have met Jesus also change their course. They do so, not because they are required to do so. They do so because for the first time in their lives, the way has become clear. They know who to trust. Many people are afraid of a commitment to Christ.
Jesus is our LIGHT and our KING. Come, let us adore him!