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Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord

Today’s feast of the Epiphany celebrates more than the visit of the Magi; it is the manifestation of God to all.  To know and to encounter Jesus Christ is to know God personally.  In the encounter of the wise men with Jesus we see the plan of God to give his only Son as King and Savior, not just for the Jewish people but for all the nations as well.  The Lord Jesus came so that both Jew and Gentile might find true and lasting peace with God.  Listen to this short story the Blessed Archbishop Fulton Sheen which tells the whole story.

“One night there went out over the stillness of the evening breeze, out over those chalky hills of Bethlehem, the cry of a new born babe.  The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  Earth did not hear the cry, for the earth slept; men did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a Child could be greater than a man; kings did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a King could be born in a stable; empires did not hear the cry, for empires did not know that an Infant could hold the reins that steer suns and worlds in their courses.  But shepherds and philosophers heard the cry, for only the very simple and the very learned know that the heart of a God can cry out in the cry of a Child.  And they came with gifts – and adored, and so great was the majesty seated on the brow of the Child, so great was the dignity of the babe, so powerful was the light of these eyes that shone like celestial suns, that they could not help but cry out: Emmanuel, God is with us.” (Archbishop Fulton Sheen (The Life of All Living)

As told by Bishop Sheen, Jesus was born in obscurity.  All knew a Messiah was to come.  It had been prophesied hundreds of years before by Jacob and Daniel.  Only the “lowly” shepherds recognized him at his birth.  Some wise men (philosophers, magicians, or sorcerers); also found their way to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel.    The Magi’s journey was a physical one but, primarily, it was a spiritual one.  In their thirst for knowledge of God, the wise men willingly left everything, their home and country, in pursuit of that quest.  They sought the Messiah, the King of the Jews and would not rest until they found him.  The Magi followed the star out of the east to Jerusalem.  Isaiah tells us “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1)

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407), in a homily on our gospel passage from Matthew 2, explains the significance of the star of Bethlehem: “Note how fitting was the order of events: the wise men saw the star, were received by the Jews and their king; they heard prophecy to explain what had appeared; the angel instructed them; and then they journeyed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the guidance of the star.  From all this we learn that this was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon, to “go before them,” drawing and guiding them along their way.  The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen.  There is nothing conspicuous about the place.  The star was needed to manifest and illumine the lowly place, until they had reached their destination at the manger.” [The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7:3]

Upon reaching Jerusalem, the wise men inquired of King Herod, “where is He that is born King of the Jews?”  Amongst all the people including King Herod’s chief priests and the scribes, it was known that, “Bethlehem, land of Judah… from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Micah 5:2)  The priests and scribes were quick to acknowledge where the Messiah was to be born.  But, not a single one was disposed to accompany the Magi to pay homage to their own King.  “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

God led them by means of an extraordinary star across the desert to the little town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  When the Magi enter the place of Jesus’ birth, they do not find a sumptuous palace fit for a king.  Rather, they found the newborn King with his mother.  St. Leo the Great, extols the Magi faith and devotion, “when a star had conducted them to adore Jesus, they did not find Him commanding devils, raising the dead, storing sight to the blind, speech to the mute (dumb), or employed in any divine actions; but a silent babe, under the care of a loving mother, giving no sign of power, but exhibiting a miracle of humility.”  Fit for royalty “the wise men prostrated themselves and did him homage.” (Matthew 2:11)  They acknowledged God-with-us, humbly worshiped him, and gave him gifts fit for a king.  The gold – was to acknowledge His regal power; the frankincense – as a confession of His Godhead; and the myrrh – as a testimony that He was to become man for redemption of the whole world. (St. Leo)

This child is the sign of what God is going to do for his people; he is the bearer of all the wisdom that will bring life to situations where there is emptiness.  Herod is probably aware on some level of the emptiness of his own life, and he goes out to destroy this child.  The Magi who are reading the signs in the heavens are also reading the signs that come to them at night in their dreams.  They become aware that Herod is not interested in the same things they are interested in. Herod is not interested in receiving the message, so they ignore him and return by another route.  They don’t go back to Herod and tell him what they have found.  When we are not in the disposition of longing and hungering for the signs, we often fake it, saying, “Oh, I’m very interested.  Why don’t you tell me what’s out there.”  This great feast of the Epiphany gives us much to reflect upon.  We have celebrated Christ’s birth, the Incarnation.

The visit of the Magi recounted in the Gospel makes this dream a reality, but the true treasure comes where St. Paul recounts how God revealed to him that the Gentiles could be saved, that they could come home too.  The Magi were not Israelites, but foreigners – Gentiles.  From us Gentiles, in the person of the wise men, we are called to the faith and worship of the true God.  They represented all the nations of earth.  In their diligent search they were led to the source of true knowledge – to Jesus Christ, the Light and Wisdom of God.  God, by showing himself to them, revealed himself to the entire world.

All peoples are considered among God’s chosen.  No more do we speak of ‘us’ and ‘them.’  There are no longer nations, gentiles, Jews, Israelites.  All take on the marvelous name of ‘co-heir’ ‘co-partner’ and members.  They and we are truly sisters and brothers of Christ, in Christ, and through Christ.  There was no distinction among races, classes, or genders.  God has no favorites; the gift of Jesus, God from God and Light from Light, is for all who wish to embrace him.  The Magi of the Gospel embody those who seek out God and wish to encounter his presence in the manger.  It is a great day indeed, but also a great challenge.  For if all of this is true, no Christian can discriminate on the basis of race or nation – we are all called to share in the one destiny.  This is the mystery of the Church: one single people of God, individuals from all nations, one in Jesus.

In St. Paul (Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6) the mystery is revealed.  It has always existed, but we have not always recognized this fact: God is there for everyone.  He’s not just there for a few.  T his doesn’t diminish his love or care for the individual, but that same care and love is offered to everyone.  The only prerequisite for those who would be in touch with the gifts of love, affection and connection that God wants to have with us is simply that we remain open.  We have to be attentive.  We have to listen.  We all desire and long for this love.  I believe every human being longs for connection with God.

On the feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the fact that Christ is the light.  He is the one peace that if we drink it in and feel it in our bones, then somehow all the other pieces of life fit together.  In the early Church, this God who revealed himself to the world did it through one community, the Israelites.  He started the story by telling them how much he loved them, how special they were to him.  And they were and they are.  Somehow this unique relationship that God wants to have with everyone and that was so beautifully played out with the Israelite people became something only for a “chosen people.”  Those outside of the Israelite community were not the people God was interested in.   And yet, God wants a relationship with each one of us.  God is so faithful and trusting.  He wants so much to be in relationship with us.

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. (Thomas Aquinas).

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