The Epiphany of Our Lord (Year B)

St. Matthew’s Gospel account of the visit of the Magi that we hear on this Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord brings to mind many images, most of them the creation of artistic renderings. A number of paintings and sculptures, songs and stories – even motion picture depictions of this event give rise to so many images that have become , at least in our culture, the accepted norms of how this event ‘unfolded’. We often think of three wise men, opulently dressed, arriving at the stable in Bethlehem to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; often in the moment, they are presented as falling to their knees in awe and wonder, as if they have discovered some incredible and deep truth.

Too often, though, when we consider these stories from the gospel, we get so ‘hung up’ on the details – how many were they, what did they look like, where exactly in the ‘East’ did they come from – that we miss the central point of this portion of the ‘infancy narratives’. Although wise men, and apparently well-to-do at that (otherwise they would not have had an audience with King Herod), they are outsiders in terms of God’s Chosen People; they are not children of Israel. And yet, here they are, worshiping and adoring Christ the Lord, who has gone unnoticed by the majority of His own people. They are Gentiles, and their inclusion in this Gospel narrative points to the fact that the Saviour has come not just for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but for all people, reconciling the entire human race to God the Father.

Yet, in this message that is certainly cause for gratitude and joy, we should reflect that even for these wise magi, God did not appear when and where they demanded or expected or even anticipated. They had to travel, led by signs, taking on a journey that would lead them from their homes and native regions – out of their comfort zone if you will – to arrive at a place and time of God’s choosing, where the Lord revealed Himself to them in the person of the infant Jesus. The revealing, or revelation was at the Lord’s discretion, not theirs. However, in taking this great journey, they illustrate their openness to receiving whatever message or sign that God wishes to impart upon them. They don’t ‘figure’ this mystery out; it is revealed to them.

We are invited to be like the magi in this story; too often perhaps we insist that God make His presence known to us when and where we decide, as if somehow it is within our power to ‘summon up’ the Almighty. God reveals Himself to us when and where we, like the Magi, are open to discovering Him. Often that means moving outside of our own comfort zones.

He is present to us, all the time, in all places, both the joyous and the difficult. It is really a question of whether or not we remain open to receiving the awareness of Him near to us, or whether we ignore Him in our midst. On this Feast of the Epiphany, we pray that in all places and at all times, we will seek the Lord where He may be found, and be open to witnessing His glory when and where He reveals Himself to us.

three_wise_men_and_their_camel_0515-1012-0801-1607_SMU

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advertisements

Epiphany (Year A)

Every few years, it seems we have an announcement in the news that one group or another has put forward another theory or ‘identification’ of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’.  Most often these announcements come just before Christmas, or around the feast of the Epiphany, the feast we celebrate today.

These theories range from the ‘best’ scientific suggestions, to the most outlandish of ideas – a conjunction of several planets perhaps, or a supernova – an exploding star – even to thoughts of alien spacecraft.

Most of these theories are put forward for one of two reasons: to disprove the miraculous nature of the story of the Nativity of Jesus – or to nail down historical physical proof to support or discount the accounts of Jesus’ infancy as recorded in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew.

But this determination to physically or scientifically prove or disprove the historicity of the particulars of this Gospel passage, is really nothing more than an attempt to satisfy curiosity.  Certainly it’s fun to wonder at what the ‘star’ really was, or whether there were more than three wise men, or exactly where they came from – but this really is far and away extremely secondary to the point of the feast of the Epiphany.

In this event recorded by St. Matthew, we have an account of the revealing to the Gentiles or the discovery by the Gentiles, of the Christ child.  We have an indication from St. Matthew’s writing that the Messiah, the instrument of God’s salvation, has come for all people – not just the children of Israel.  These foreigners, these visitors from outside Israel – are the first to come to worship Jesus, even before his own people have understood the prophecies pointing to his birth.

They are drawn by light; by the light of a star.  And when the star stops ‘moving’ and they discover where it is, they discover Jesus – and rather than congratulating themselves on following this star or celebrating a scientific discovery, the Gospel tells us the paid the child ‘homage’ – they worshipped Him.  They didn’t pay homage to the star or to the light of the star; they paid homage to Jesus.

Their science and understanding was useful to them, but it only brought them to a certain point in this invitation to relationship from God; at some point, the Truth of faith spoke to their hearts, and they worshipped Christ.

They discovered with eyes of faith, what their eyes of reason had brought them to.  They were drawn by the light – and the light led them to Jesus.

The feast of the Epiphany, of the revealing of Christ; of the ‘discovery’ of Christ is something that doesn’t need to be isolated to a historical event.  It is something that we are each called to live out as Christians every day.  Just as the light of a star drew ‘foreigners’ or ‘strangers’ to Christ, so too, the light of our lives in Christ should draw others to Him. We don’t live lives of virtue to attract others to us – we do it to share our love of God and to invite others into that loving relationship.  It doesn’t have to be flashy or big or spectacular; but it has to be authentic; it has to be real and genuine.

We are called to be living ‘stars’ if you will; spreading the light of  Christ through  lived virtue; when we live the virtues of faith, of hope, of charity – humility, prudence, self-control, perseverance – these qualities attract others; they draw others –not to us – but to the author of these virtues: to God.

He truly is present, in our midst; and we are invited to be a reflection of that reality; to discover Him ourselves, and reveal Him to others through our lives.  It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking or enterprise – it doesn’t have to involve a superhuman effort; but it is doing something great for God – imagine, each of us is invited to actually play a part in salvation history, the plan that God set in motion from the moment our first parents separated themselves from God.  What an incredible opportunity and gift God is holding out to us.  And that authentically lived gratitude can’t help but attract others;

St. Augustine probably said this best when he wrote, “One loving soul sets another on fire.”

to be the light of Christ and invite the stranger into our midst; to invite them to come and adore Christ as the magi did.

When we do this, particularly in His Church and His Sacraments, we can do so with joy and the wonder of that Epiphany – of that discovery that we know with our minds and can feel in the depths of our hearts…that Christ, His Church and His Sacraments are wonders and miracles and glories that we are given and can approach and can share, each and every day of our lives.

magi

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

 

Epiphany

Quite often we don’t see or stop recognizing great things in our own midst; it happens time and again in our Church; but it also happens in our communities or workplaces, even in our own homes and families….we expect that greatness comes from somewhere outside, and that which is within while, a ‘good effort’ is not something that we see as ‘great’ or ‘earth shaking’ because perhaps we’re too close to it to recognize the effect it has on others.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany; the occasion recorded for us in the Gospel of St. Matthew, when magi, or wise men, from foreign lands, traveled to Bethlehem – they were following a star which had appeared, and which, to their science and learning and wisdom of the time, would indicate something of tremendous importance to the entire world – most likely the birth of a great King, or someone even greater.  The Magi, scholars tell us, most likely traveled from Persia, which is modern day Iraq, and were learned men.  They were possibly of great importance, as the Gospel records they had a private audience with King Herod; not something ordinary ‘scientists’ would have been invited to.  In their culture and time they were well educated, and were drawn by their knowledge and obvious dedication to their studies to travel to see the outcome or result of this wonder in the heavens.  Here we have an early example that science and religion are not polar opposites…God created all things, and in the natural world, uses it to draw those with open minds who seek the real Truth, closer to Himself.  He draws the Magi from their own lands and brings them to Bethlehem, where He reveals Himself to them through the Sacred Scriptures in prophecy, and in the person of Jesus Christ.  And despite what their science and studies have taught them, despite what their religious practices were prior to that moment, the Gospel says, ‘they knelt down and paid him homage…”They worshipped Him.  These Gentiles who were not from among God’s ‘chosen people’ were in awe of the work of God; of God entering into our humanity.  These ‘outsiders’ recognized the wonder of God, while the ‘insiders’ did not.

 This theme of foreigners, of non-Jews, of Gentiles being drawn into relationship with God is spoken of in prophecy by Isaiah in our first reading, “nations shall come to Your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…”. More than 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah writes of how all nations will be coming to God through His Messiah – that it will not be salvation for Israel alone, but for the whole human race.  St. Paul too picks up this theme, writing for the Ephesians, when he says, ‘the Gentiles have become heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.’

Here was the promised Messiah, the promise God had made through His prophets and Sacred Scripture, and he was largely unrecognized, unappreciated, and rejected by those in His own country and culture, who should have been the ones to recognize who He was in their midst.  St. Matthew almost screams this out in his writing of his Gospel, particularly from the beginning – he backs up each mention of a circumstance of Jesus conception, birth, the visits of the magi, all of it , with references to what the prophets said in scripture earlier….in this particular Gospel passage for example, speaking of his birthplace, St. Matthew quotes the prophet Micah, ‘and you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”….time and again, in His gospel, written for a Jewish audience, St. Matthew is saying ‘See…we should have know right from the beginning that Jesus was the one promised by God – the prophets all pointed to him, his life bore out what the prophets said about him…right from the beginning; and because he was humble and in our midst, we never saw who he truly was….it was those from outside, from foreigners, from Gentiles that those who worshipped Him first came from.”

There was someone though, in Israel, who was open to the possibility that the child born in Bethlehem was truly of great importance.  And this is where we have one of the greatest contrasts in the Scriptures; of the opposing choices that everyone faces with the possibility the Christ has entered into our world and into our lives; in contrast to the homage paid to the new-born King of kings by the magi, we have the reaction of King Herod, the great.

Unlike the rest of the nation at the time of Jesus’ birth, who largely ignored Him, and unlike the Gentiles, the non-Jews who are the first in Matthew’s Gospel to honour Christ, King Herod seeks to destroy Jesus.

 A bit of a historical context can even help us to more fully appreciate this episode from the Gospels.

Herod’s family ruled in Palestine from about 40 BC until the late 50’s AD.  They were Arabs who had converted to Judaism, and ruled the territory with the permission of Rome. Through political maneuvering, Herod had achieved the power he had, and was a close ally of the Emperor Augustus.  Historians of the time, among them Josephus, and Tacitus, as well as other writers, provide us with an image of Herod; he was paranoid, power-hungry and absolutely ruthless; although he was Jewish by conversion, whenever he acted contrarily to the laws of their religion, if the religious leaders were bold enough to point this out, Herod would simply execute them by the dozens.  He would go to lengths to prove to the Romans that he could be just as merciless as they were, crucifying scores of people on the outside walls of his palace.  Herod even had one of his wives executed, along with some of his young sons on separate occasions; and their crime? He feared they were more popular than he was.  Herod sought permission from Rome at one point in writing, to execute two of his sons, which caused the Emperor Augustus himself to comment, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than one of his sons…”

But Herod was a builder too, constructing a great fortress at Masada, and of course, rebuilding the great Temple in Jerusalem, a project which would take 46 years to complete.  But we have to look at his motives; Herod, the convert, raising a great edifice that people would marvel at, come to and no doubt, recognize him for building; it was a way for him, so he thought, to control God too – to use God and worship of Him to keep his own subjects happy and to place his own people in the religious leadership to solidify his influence.   Trying to bend God to his will, rather than surrendering his will to God’s.

The trouble was, now the prophecies pointed to this unknown child in Bethlehem coming as God’s promised Messiah who would lead, not only Israel, but all people.  The problem was that Herod, like the rest of the leadership of Israel, didn’t understand that the Messiah was not to be a political ruler, but something far greater.  And because he didn’t understand that, that he feared his grasp on power and his personal ambitions would be lost, rather than try to be open to what God’s will was for him, Herod sought to destroy the child, through what we have come to call the massacre of the innocents, all of the boys in Bethlehem two years and under. 

The irony is that while Herod is in the middle of His tremendous project of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem – a temple of bricks and mortar where the inner Holy of Holies was where the glory of God was believed to dwell – here he was plotting and attempting to destroy the living Temple of God in the person of Jesus, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity…..because the call to holiness for all people, to return to God, did not fit in with Herod’s personal  plans , ambitions and insecurities.

For all of us, it really comes down to these choices; we can ignore Christ among us as most of Palestine did at His birth- and as our consumerist society tells us to do today;  we can reject and seek to destroy any influence He has in our lives as Herod did –as our modern relativist and secular societies do; or we can seek Him out in faith and reason – as the magi did- and worship and pay homage to Him when we discover Him in our midst.  When we have the opportunity to recognize, to approach, to worship Him, particularly in His Church and His Sacraments, we can do so with joy and the awe of that Epiphany – of that discovery that we know with our minds and can feel in the depths of our hearts…that we can approach and place ourselves before Christ at any time; and that His Church and His Sacraments are wonders and miracles and glories that we are given, to approach each and every day of our lives.

 magi

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!