Today is the true Christmas for Eastern Catholics – those from the Byzantine and Maronite rites, among others. For them, this feast is about Christ’s birth, baptism and presentation to the world. The Western church uses this feast to continue the story from the announcement of Christ’s birth, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. This feast and the entire Advent/Christmas season is one of dreams, of looking at the heavens, of following stars and of getting a glimpse of what will come. Without Epiphany, one can’t celebrate the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ for all people. The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation” and it proclaims that salvation is for all and not for an exclusive group.
Three themes dominate our readings today: “Jerusalem is the source of light for the nations”; “Christ is the revelation of God to all the nations”; “New relationships are established in Christ between Jew and Gentile.”
“Light for the nations”
The theme of light surfaces consistently in today’s readings, but, most particularly in the first reading by the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah points to Jerusalem as the sign and symbol of a people—once in darkness, now called to become light of all nations. Isaiah looks forward to a light that will shine forth from Jerusalem. He foresees that all the nations of the world will walk by that light, will acknowledge that light, and so will proclaim the praises of the God of Israel. (Daniel Harrington on Isaiah 60). The light does not come from the “outside” but from those who have experienced the grace of God.
“Christ is the revelation of God to all nations”
God sent a child to be born. To be like each one of us when He was born. To be conceived by the Holy Spirit. To be carried in the womb for nine months. To be born in a hospital, a birthing room, your home with a midwife, in a vehicle on the way to the hospital, in a stable surrounded by animals. The difference being that Christ was fully human, yet Devine, born without sin.
Jesus was born in obscurity. In St. Luke’s Gospel account it was the Angels, animals, and poor shepherds who recognized the birth of the Messiah. In our gospel reading today from St. Matthew’s, it was the Magi, the astronomers from the Far East, who watched and followed the signs of the Star to The Messiah’s birthplace.
These Magi observed this great star in the sky when nobody else did. When did this star first appear? Nobody knows for sure. But, in all likelihood, it possibly appeared when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she came to be with child. As astronomers, they watched this new star grow in prominence and the fact it never moved. It always remained over a place that lay to the West of where they lived. They didn’t have the internet to look up why the star was there, why it was growing brighter day by day, and what its meaning was. They knew that this star had special significance. They knew there was a Messiah to be born somewhere in time. They likely had read and discussed the Messianic prophecies and were anxious to see when this Messianic King would appear. They knew in all their study of time and the stars that this was the star of the Messiah. These men were not Israelites, but foreigners. God led them by means of an extraordinary star across the desert to the little town of Bethlehem. In their thirst for knowledge of God, the wise men from the East willingly left everything, their home and country, in pursuit of the Star and the Messiah. In their search they were led to the source of true knowledge – to Jesus Christ, the Light and Wisdom of God. When they found the newborn King they humbly prostrated themselves, worshiped him, and gave him gifts fitting for the newborn King of Israel.
Jesus came for the entire world, but the entire world has not welcomed him as the son of God, as savior, or as a King. He was so obscure as to be born in a stable, and yet powerful enough that he struck fear into the heart of a king and his empire. A fear so great, that King Herod would eventually have all baby boys between the ages of birth and two years old killed in proximity to Bethlehem, (The Holy Innocents), because they perceived as a threat to his power over the people.
The magi of the Gospel embody those who seek out God and wish to encounter his presence in the manger. Today’s feast celebrates more than the visit of the Magi; it is the manifestation of God to all. All peoples are considered among God’s chosen. In our limited perspective, we all like to feel that we are central within this message, not on the fringes. It’s useful to remember that Jesus was not a Westerner such as us. The Magi have long stood as symbols of the many races and cultures of our world. Christ came to make all equal.
If Jesus truly is who he claims to be, the eternal Son of God and Savior of the world, then why is he not recognized by everyone who hears his word and sees his works? John the Evangelist states that when Jesus came into the world, the world knew him not, and his own people did not receive him (John 1:10-11).
“New relationships are established in Christ between Jew and Gentile.”
In our second reading from Ephesians, St. Paul indicates that God makes no distinction among people. He accepts all who honor him and act justly, regardless of race or ethnicity. St Paul assures us that even the Gentiles have been given the opportunity to experience the grace of God. God has no favorites; the gift of Jesus, God from God and Light from Light, is for all who wish to embrace him.
St. Paul proclaimed Christ as a great unifying force among peoples of the most varied background. He comes, Paul says, to tear down the walls of hostility that divide us and to reconcile to God and to one another. The mystery revealed in Christ is a mystery of reconciliation; all peoples are called to form a single body, a holy temple, a dwelling place for God.
Today we celebrate receiving God’s light. But there is more to it than that. The First Reading opens with “Rise up in splendor…Your light has come.” We are to do more than just receive the light. We are to share it and reflect it. In our terms it is as if the Lord said “Rise and shine; your light has come.” That is what we mean when we say we are called. We are called to be disciples and to be the Light of Christ for those around us. “To Love one another, as I have loved you.”
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul also speaks of the revelations which this day represents. Paul points out that it had been revealed to us; a revelation is an epiphany. What is revealed? Exactly what Isaiah speaks of in the fact that Christ and His Divinity are revealed to the whole world. And what is the key to this revelation? The fact that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Jesus was bigger than a Messiah for the Jews. St. Paul tells us that God sent Jesus into this world for everyone! Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus came to save all of us. You and I: the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute, the pedophile, the killer on death row, the average person on the street, the immigrant, the gay, lesbian, transgender, the person sitting in church here today. In our world, we judge each other by how big our “sin” is. We look and judge it from the side view, as in a bar graph. In God and Christ’s view, they view all sins, and are equal, as in a top view of that same bar graph.
The Lord of the universe who revealed the star of Bethlehem to the Gentiles of the East so they could come and worship Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and King of Kings (Revelations 19:16), gives each one of us the same light of revelation to recognize and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to us. It is through the help of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and opens the eyes of the mind, that we are able to understand, accept, and believe the truth which God has revealed to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. In faith, the human will and intellect cooperate with grace. “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (Thomas Aquinas).