The Epiphany of the Lord
Reflection: Whom do you identify with?
If we want to imagine something beyond what our crèche sets depict, we might think of the Magi as a traveling group of families or friends seeking the meaning of a sign they had perceived in the heavens.
As happens to many who come to a land not their own, their presence alarmed some people. The travelers were looking for the newborn king of the Jews — and according to the religious professionals, none of the right people had an infant who fit the bill. The Magi’s questions disturbed people. As strangers, they didn’t understand that they should keep quiet and leave well enough alone. What did they hope to find in Bethlehem of all places? What were they called to? We might ask the same.
The readings for the feast of the Epiphany invite us to begin this new year by asking with whom in today’s Gospel we will decide to identify. Will we choose to settle as a sedentary church, quiet in the face of darkness, contented with the minimal ritual and almsgiving that supposedly fulfill our religious obligations?
Or do we want to be more like the Magi – eager to be on the move in search of God among us? Isaiah awakens us to what God holds out as possible. Paul tells us that we are to steward this mystery. Matthew holds up the example of the Magi to nudge us out of our cozy corners and into areas where we can encounter Emmanuel, God-with-us, in ever-new ways.
As we begin our new year, today urges us to listen to the seekers who want more than they have found in conventional religion. Their searching reminds us that God is bigger than any ritual or tradition and is always waiting to encounter us anew, somewhere beyond our expectations.
By SISTER MARY McGLONE
The Gospels tell us that, in response to various circumstances, Jesus rejoiced, wept, demonstrated anger and was impatient with his disciples. Of all the divine estimations of earthly situations, irony might be the one that most saddens or delights God.
Clearly, tragedy is worse: Catastrophes, wars, plagues . . . God is intensely present to the sufferers in all those events, even though, like Jesus on the cross, they often cry out, feeling abandoned. But the ironic things, the things that happen in the opposite way from the expected, can be the source of profound disappointment or delight. Matthew’s story of the Magi is full of irony.
Matthew structured his Gospel so that everything would illumine Jesus’ last command and final promise. After telling the disciples to spread the Gospel throughout the whole world, he promised, “Behold, I am with you, until the end of the age.”
Who knows from what sources Matthew drew his stories about Jesus’ birth? Matthew wasn’t about writing a history. When we study his stories, we realize that his narrative, although it’s been embellished for centuries, is surprisingly sparse. Even so, Matthew wants us to perceive something important in the events he describes.
For Matthew, Joseph, a true son of Abraham, is the chief human actor in the events leading to Jesus’ birth (the birth itself is mentioned only in passing). Matthew exhibits more interest in the star than in Mary and Jesus! The star, a symbol visible to the whole world, proclaimed that an extraordinary event had taken place — in obscurity. Who paid attention? Pagans, people who were not of the true faith of Israel. The Magi, practiced at their own kind of discernment, read the signs of the times and had enough humility and courageous curiosity to venture beyond their certainties.
Storytellers have led us to think we know the names of the people (Kings? Religious leaders? Intellectuals?) who visited Jesus in Bethlehem. In reality, the Magi could well have comprised a caravan of pilgrims who knew trade routes and studied the skies. (The number three refers to the gifts, not the travelers.) As diplomatic visitors, they presented themselves to the local people of rank, explaining their quest.
When the Magi asked for the newborn king, Herod turned to the religious leaders to ask what the prophecies said about where the Christ was to be born. Illustrating John’s statement that “he came to his own and his own knew him not,” the leaders demonstrated that they could decipher prophecy while remaining immune to its message. Thus, pagan pilgrims replaced the scribes and priests who could have led the way to Emmanuel.
What is Matthew telling us with these details? First, he’s warning against religious certainty. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ enemies are convinced that they have the whole truth and that Jesus is a heretic or worse. To God’s grief, their certainty blinded them to the natural wonder of the star and the wisdom of their scriptures.
The Magi were seekers. They observed a sign and desired to understand what it meant. They displaced themselves, seeking something bigger than what they already knew. Although strangers to Israel, they acted more like Abraham than did his descendants who claimed to revere their wandering ancestor. The leaders exhibited no interest in following in Abraham’s pilgrim footsteps toward a hope greater than anything he had known before. The Magi exemplified the poor in spirit, people open and inquisitive enough to discover a God bigger than their imagination — a God who would delight in their seeking and finding.
Matthew tells on the leaders in Jerusalem to warn us against allowing dogma to close the door on growth in faith. He portrays the wandering Magi as guides to Emmanuel, God with us. Matthew encourages us to cultivate the humility and openness necessary to discover something bigger, deeper – more mysterious than our best teachings or wildest imaginings.
Ironic isn’t it? Pagans following a star were open to the manifestation of the God of Israel while religious leaders disregarded all the signs they had at hand.
Today’s feast is called the Epiphany. “Epiphany” refers to a manifestation of God or an insight into the deep meaning of something. An epiphany is a happening, not an activity or decision. We may journey like the Magi seeking something, but epiphany is beyond our control. Epiphany happens to people willing to have their minds changed. Epiphany is an experience of grace; for those who will receive it, it is an experience of God with us until the end of the age.
For today’s feast, in addition to singing “We Three Kings,” we might imitate them and sing a humble mantra: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” Ironically, wandering wonder is the recipe for being open to an epiphany.
(Isaiah 60: 1-6)
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.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
(Psalm 72: 1-2,7-8, 10-11, 12-13)
(Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6)
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
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.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
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.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.