The Feast of the Epiphany is the oldest feast in the Liturgical Calendar after Easter and Pentecost. Epiphany was celebrated long before even Christmas itself came to be regarded as a feast.
The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation” and refers to the appearance or making known of Christ. In the beginning this feast was about several manifestations of Christ: his first coming into the world, his being made known to the Shepherds, his manifestation to the Wise Men from the East, it included God announcing who he was at his Baptism by John, and the demonstration of his power in his First Miracle at the Marriage Feast of Cana.
As the Feast of Christmas and the other feasts gradually came to be separated over time, the Epiphany centered on the manifestation of Christ to the Magi —in other words to the Gentiles.
The feast of Epiphany has the makings of lots of drama. It features long journeys, guiding stars, ominous danger, holy dreams, great escapes, and a threatened baby.
In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we hear of three wise men who traveled by camel and on foot from the East to Bethlehem. Imagine, if you will, this journey took several days if not weeks. These men weren’t even Israelites; they were foreigners. They were Gentiles.
The Magi symbolize our noblest human efforts. They are wise ones, star-gazers, people of philosophy, science, and treasure. They most likely have read and discussed the prophecies and were anxious to see when this King of Israel, this Messiah would appear. God led them by means of an extraordinary star across the desert. In their thirst for the knowledge of God, they willingly left their home and country to pursue that quest. They go in search for the truth. But, they first go to the high and mighty Herod, who is afraid because he is threatened by a child. This defenseless child who has no power other than the strength of hope to all people. The Magi were led to the source of true knowledge – to the child of the Most High – Jesus Christ, the Light and Wisdom of God. When they found the newborn king they humbly worshiped him and gave him gifts fitting for a king.
In the Gospel Reading, God sent the Magi by means of heavenly signs to the baby Jesus. In the end, the signs in heaven were not enough; but there was a special revelation about this child that added the missing element. When they did find the child, the Magi left him rich gifts. God, then, warned the Magi in a dream not to return to King Herod to tell him where the baby was located. Because of that dream, the Magi went home another way, and the baby was kept safe from Herod. Stop and look at all the things God does for this one child! Signs in heaven, miraculously helpful strangers, special messages from God, rich gifts, and warning dreams, divine protection against powerful bad people.
Starting on Christmas Day and continuing through today, we have celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas. For those of you who took down your trees early, Christmas isn’t officially over till tomorrow/today. Over the Christmas period we gave presents to different people and they gave presents to us. What exactly is this gifting about? Its roots lie in the story of the wise men who, on arriving at the stable in Bethlehem, fell on their knees and offered their best gifts to the baby who was born to be king.
Christmas can be more than just the season for exchanging presents. Even more, it’s a time for being present, i.e. sharing ourselves with others, showing them warmth, affection and sincerity. The sharing of our personal presence is vital. Our practical gift-giving may be superficial, going through the motions, more a way of keeping the peace than of being really present. Our gift-giving can be shallow or hollow, it is not an expression of personal love. However, the Magi were generous and sincere. Their gifts expressed reverence, gratitude and love for the child in the manger. Their gifts were given with no conditions attached and no mixed motives.
We set up Nativity scenes in churches and homes at Christmas with the figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and various creatures. Today, at the feast of Epiphany, we place the statues of the Three Kings in the Christmas crèche.
Observing the star, those wise men from the East set out for Bethlehem, in order to find Jesus and to offer him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The “epiphany” of Jesus was accompanied by the offering of these three gifts, each of which symbolized a different aspect of the divine/human savior. Gold is offered to Jesus the King of the human race, the summit of creation; Frankincense is offered to Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word of the Father who is worshiped with the Father and the Spirit; and Myrrh is offered to the divine/human savior of the world who suffered and died for the salvation of all.
In many such scenes these visitors from the east, bearing their gifts, stand in awe, though perhaps one or more of them may bend a knee. But rarely, gazing at these figures, do we feel the power of the scripture that today proclaims, “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
To be prostrate is to be flat on the floor, face down, disarmed, immobile, vulnerable. It is much more than a nod of the head, or a quick genuflection. This gesture expresses the heart’s conviction of being in the Presence of “One mightier than I.” Every time you attend or see the ordination of a Deacon, Priest, or Bishop whether in person, on EWTN, or in a video, such as You Tube, you will see these individuals lying prostrate before the one who is to ordain them. The person who is in charge of the ordination is laying on hands. The laying on of hands represents the succession of laying on of hands by Bishops down through time back to St. Peter who was blessed by Jesus Christ. We see this same action as these “foreigners” express through their bodies, the inner stance of deep humility, the only true response in the presence of God in the flesh in Jesus.
Jesus is revealed in our own day as well, here and now! He is revealed as the Word of God speaking to us in the marvelous workings of nature, in the achievements of the human spirit, and in the dialogue between Church and world. He is revealed to us later as the Priest proclaims the through the words of Transubstantiation the changing of the bread and wine into our dear Lord and Savior’s real Body and Blood. We each have the opportunity to share in that same Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as we process up for Communion. We don’t prostate ourselves before the Priest and the Minister of communion, but we do bow or genuflect as reverence to Christ before us. We do the same with his precious blood that is offered to everyone who comes to partake of Christ’s Body. If you do not take of the Body or the Blood, you still honor Christ’s presence by bowing or genuflecting. That is the beauty of Mass and Communion. We have the honor to stand before the living person of Jesus Christ just as the Magi did. We have the honor of of bowing and reverencing the living Jesus Christ just as the Magi did.
He is revealed to us as King in every victory over ignorance, alienation and powerlessness. He is revealed to us as Suffering Messiah in the heart and face of every poor person, every stranger, every wanderer living in a back alley or under a bridge, every person victimized by others.
As we contemplate the nativity scene, we are called to reflect on the responsibility of every Christian to spread the Gospel. Each of us is called to bear glad tidings to all, testifying by our practical works of mercy to the joy of knowing Jesus and his love.
St. Paul makes explicit that Christ came for all peoples: the “Gentiles are coheirs” and “copartners in the promise” of Christ for salvation. He reflects on the same thing when he alludes to the well-known story of his own conversion and says that this special revelation is what led him to preach the Good News to Gentiles.
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 that both Jew and Gentile might find true and lasting peace with God.
The travels of the wise men were both a physical journey as well as a journey of faith. All of us are in a journey – to experience life, to find out what our lives are really all about, and in that process, to find God in our lives at the same time. There is that search for a higher being, a worthwhile cause that is beyond our lives and this cause is God’s Kingdom.
And whenever we find God in lives, through Jesus Christ, we must always remember to thank Him, to praise and worship God. We must always thank God for the many gifts and blessings He has given us in our lives. Then, like the three wise men who offered Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, we offer our gifts – the gifts of ourselves, our work, our families, our service to the Church and so on – we offer all these gifts back to God.