Jan 7, 2017

The Epiphany of the Lord - a light has shone!

(Fernando Gallego - Epiphany)

They prostrated themselves and did him homage

Having grown up in a very Catholic family in the very Catholic city of Chicago surrounded by my relatives, all of whom were of the Catholic faith, with parents who were very much a part of our local parish along with my siblings, products of a large Catholic grade school, I never gave a thought to what it might be like to not be Catholic! We never thought of a Sunday without going to Mass first. This was the light we followed and had no desire to go anywhere else. We certainly weren’t the only ones who lived that way.  It was part of the culture.

However, when I finally did meet a non-Catholic at the age of twelve on a family vacation, my reaction, as I look back, was to feel like I was talking to an alien from another planet.  I was curious as to why they didn’t believe as we do.  With no ill intent, I still took a kind of superior attitude. I had the true light and felt they didn’t so my job would be to show them what they were missing. I didn’t really put the pressure on. We were just kids and never pursued any kind of theological discussion on the finer points of Catholicism but I felt I had something he didn’t.  On one level we can say that's true of course but all this came from a somewhat self-righteous twelve year old! Well-meaning maybe but not the best approach.

That kind of superior attitude is not found among the seekers this Sunday; the Magi took a very different approach because they knew something more was out there and they were determined to find it. They approached their journey with humility and open hearts and minds. They were in search before they arrived in Jerusalem: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising . . .” they tell Herod. So, our Feast this weekend, the Epiphany reminds us that we Christians, we Gentiles which fill our Churches, have a direct connection to the ancient Jews through their traditions, prophecies and the birth of Jesus himself within the Jewish tradition. As I recently said to a family member: “Do you know that none of the Apostles were Catholic?” Think about that for a minute. 

Therefore, we might say the Epiphany is probably among the most ecumenical of all Church feasts.  As the Magi come to symbolize the greater world beyond ancient Bethlehem and Jerusalem we see ourselves reflected in them.  To follow the signs of nature in the bright star and to interpret a deeper significance in the shining light, the Magi laid aside all other attractions in their lives and saw in this new young child a greater King; a person of higher rank than themselves and deserving of worship, which they offered in a humble spirit

The Magi represent the intellectual world; the higher ranked ones; the kind of elite and wealthy whose knowledge not only about their own study of the stars and planets was great but also their knowledge of what the ancient Jews believed about the Messiah.  They represented an open mind and set out on a journey to ultimately find the truth; something and someone who represented more than what they knew.

So, it’s clear that they were on a search and staying in Jerusalem was not on their agenda.  Once they were led to Bethlehem by the light of a star they found the one they searched for and laid down their gifts. They saw not in the powerful and the learned the fulfillment of their hopes; someone like themselves but in a small child with his mother.  Something more was at work in this event that led them to a deeper awareness that something far more is outside them. Their faith was changed. Once they returned to their country we can only imagine what they might have told others about their search.

So, the Epiphany is an opportunity to recognize those moments in our lives when we have come to a deeper understanding of our faith.  As well-meaning as I might have been when I met that student my understanding of my Catholic faith was more centered on me than it was around Christ.  I needed to mature and maybe to listen to their story first.  Children aren’t exactly ready for that kind of thinking but as I look back it’s a good lesson for me today. 

So, we may be tempted to look at this Epiphany story as a kind of passive event.  The Magi journey, they find their way to Jerusalem, have an intense encounter with King Herod, go to Bethlehem, find the child, present their gifts and go on their way. 

But, the light of today we heard in Isaiah symbolizes God’s effort to shine upon us.  To show us his Son and to say to the world “I love you.”  More than just love to see in Jesus a light which leads us to the truth of God and cuts through all that isn’t him; everything we go in search of thinking that will fulfill us. It’s plenty: money, position, power, fame, technology, the latest and the brightest.  Everything the world says we need to have a meaningful life.

God is shining the brighter light of himself for us.  To see in Christ what the Magi saw is to do what they did: to lay down what they used and substitute something greater – the newborn King. This is the child who will become a man and state: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

So, though our gift giving may be ended for this season, or if maybe you give on today’s Epiphany, the ultimate gift is one that God gives us; the gift of himself in his Son and like the Magi we follow the path to him. We meet him on his terms, not on our own.  The Magi returned to their Country by another route not only because they were warned to do so but more because they were forever changed.

“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” With those beautiful words from Isaiah the prophet our liturgy begins this Sunday. The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is filled with the image of light. What kind of light do we bring to others? 

O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star, 
grant in your mercy
that we, who know you already by faith, 
may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Opening Prayer for Feast)