How have you encountered Christ in your life?
On the Feast of Epiphany, we celebrate more than the arrival of the magi from the East. This feast, which has been around since at east as far back as the fourth century, in addition to the visit of the magi, includes the Baptism of the Lord, and the wedding at Cana. Each of these events reveals something about Jesus. Before we get to those, let’s talk about what the name “epiphany” tells us about the celebration.
The name of the celebration, Epiphany, has its roots in Greek and means manifestation or appearance. In the Bible, the word is used when referring to he manifestation of God’s power over an oppressing army (2 Macc 15:27), his coming to earth to destroy death and restore life through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10), and several other places. Wikipedia tells me that in classical Greek usage, the word meant “appearance of dawn, of an enemy in war, but especially of a manifestation of a deity to a worshiper.” (This last one is a special kind of epiphany called a theophany.)
When we put all of this context around the word epiphany, it takes a slightly different character than what we might have in our heads: We are not celebrating a nice postcard image of a cute baby who got crazy expensive gifts from eastern proto-Christians. We are celebrating the God who created the universal taking on human flesh in order to manifest his divinity amongst humanity. We are celebrating the God whom Moses calls the “war man,” (Ex 15:3) telling us that God has the knowledge, power, and will to defeat his enemy, that is, to defeat evil and sin. We are celebrating the God shines his light on the whole of humanity, brings hope to the hopeless, and justice to those who have been mistreated. On Epiphany, we celebrate that God appeared, like the dawn, as a man named Jesus, that he came to make war on Satan and his evil minions, that he will cast the oppressive bonds of sin off his children, that he will destroy death, and that he will restore the promise of eternal life to all of us.
So… the Feast of Epiphany is important. In fact, it used to out-rank Christmas.
On this feast day, we celebrate three particular manifestations of God. It was four, but pretty early on the Nativity was split into its own feast. The first manifestation of God that we celebrate on Epiphany is the coming of the magi from the East. The magicians, also sometimes called wise men, watched the stars for signs. The appearance of a new star meant that a new king had been born, one with power over the heavens. These men set out on a long and treacherous journey to find this new king who had been foretold in a prophecy known well outside Israel, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17) Upon finally reaching Bethlehem, they presented expensive gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The symbolism of these gifts is unmistakable: gold reveals Jesus is king; frankincense reveals that he will offer prayer and sacrifice to the Father; and myrrh reveals that Jesus will die, something nobody would ever expect from God until he does it 30-some years later.
This article is getting a bit long and nerdy, so I’ll try and move it along a little bit.
The Baptism of Jesus, which now has its own feast day, reveals two things. First, Jesus is the Son of the Father, he is God, and the Father is well-pleased with him. Second, Jesus’s mission begins with repentance. Those who wish to follow him must repent of their sinful ways and turn toward him. This means leaving sin behind, just as the Israeli people left Egypt behind when they fled in the Exodus. The Children of Abraham passed through the Red Sea to leave a life of slavery and sin behind, and we, also children of Abraham because of our faith, leave sin behind through our own baptism.
The Wedding at Cana reveals many things about Jesus. We see at this wedding Jesus’s first public miracle. I think that the other critically important thing we see in the wedding at Cana is that Jesus is at a wedding, celebrating. Marriage and family is important to God. If we look at the history of salvation and God’s actions, he works through families to save the world: Noah’s family, Abraham’s family, Moses’s family, David’s family, Joseph’s family, and countless others. God loves the family, and through the family God will save the world. This is a reminder and a call to all of us to protect our families, to build them up, and to stand strong against the evil assaults that this world throws against our families.
There is so much more we can say about this incredible feast of Epiphany, but I’ll have to save it for another time.
God invites all of us to come to him.
Homily for Epiphany, 2021
I don’t know how we’ve already arrived at Epiphany. The wise men must have been sprinting to Bethlehem this year!
The name for today’s feast, Epiphany, tells us that today we celebrate the manifestation or revelation of something terribly important. Traditionally, the three different revelations of Christ we celebrate on this day are the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the Wedding at Cana. In each of these three events, Jesus is revealed as the Christ.
Today, though, let’s look at the visit of the Magi. These men, certainly well-off if they were undertaking a journey, saw a star in the sky and were led to Jerusalem, which from ages past had been called to be a light to the nations. The magi, upon arriving in Jerusalem, perhaps were shocked to find so little recognition of the amazing event that had just happened. Nevertheless, these men, the Gentiles, had enough faith to persevere and eventually come to the home of the Holy Family, to pay homage to a child, and to offer him gold for his royalty, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his mortality.
Recall, now, the visit of the Shepherds on Christmas night. A choir of angels appeared to them. They took a risk and went to visit the Christ-child. They paid him homage. While they had no gifts to offer him, it was fitting that the True Shepherd was greeted on his arrival in this world by shepherds.
These two very different visits to the Christ-child teach us many things, but if we look at them together, we learn even more.
What was it that brought the shepherds? A choir of angels. A supernatural gift from God.
What was it that brought the magi? A star. A natural phenomenon, yes, but no less a gift from God.
The shepherds were able to get there in a single night.
The magi, most likely, took much longer to travel to Christ. Perhaps a year or two.
The Jewish shepherds were unlearned men, not particularly watching for signs of a savior.
The Eastern magi were highly educated, watching the sky every night for signs.
We see all of these differences, and yet God still was able to lead both groups to himself. God can work through special gifts, or through the simple graces of nature. Nature, if we study it with pure hearts and a desire for truth, will certainly reveal its creator. God can work quickly on our hearts, or he can lead us on an extended journey. Either way, our faith grows strong. God wants all of us for himself: whether we are uneducated or educated, whether we are Christian or not, whether we are Catholic or not, whether we are looking for him or would only notice if a literal choir of angels showed up to tell us.
On this feast of Epiphany, we rejoice in the revelation of Christ’s glory to us. Let us also remember that God reveals his glory to us every day of our lives. May we stay close to him in prayer so that when he speaks to us—in whatever he desires—we might be listening.
January 3, 2021
Epiphany, Year B
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Note: this homily was prepared on January 5, 2020. It was published online on January 17, 2020. Sorry about the delay.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. We all just heard again the story we know so well. Three magi, guided by a star, come to Israel in search of a newborn king. They find Jesus with Mary and Joseph, prostrate themselves, and offer him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned in a dream against Herod, they depart from Bethlehem a different way. But why do we call this Epiphany? You used to have to look these things up in a very thick and fancy book about Bible things, but now Wikipedia tells you right away that “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia), which means something like manifestation or appearance. They used it to refer to the appearance of a God to worshippers. What occurs during the visit of these three wise men from the East, these three astrologers, these three Gentiles, that reveals Jesus to his followers—to us?
We can actually learn a lot from the three wise men from the East. These men were watching the sky closely enough to recognize a new star being born in the sky. They were constantly on the lookout for a manifestation of deity from the Heavens. As the magi watched the sky for signs from heaven, we are called to watch for the Lord. We must live with open eyes, because the Lord will come at a time we do not expect. We might not even recognize him at first—his own Apostles did not recognize him on the road to Emmaus! We do not know the day or the hour that we will meet our Lord; however, we must always be prepared to meet Him.
After traveling for quite some time, the magi went to Jerusalem to inquire about where the new king had been born. The star, the light and guide for their journey, seems to have become hidden from their view. We too can lose sight of our Lord. We too can become lost along the way. There are many responses we could have when this happens, but the wise men show us what we must do. They consulted the scholars of the law and the chief priests for guidance. If anybody knew where the King of the Jews would be born, it was them. When we become lost, when we struggle to find God in our lives, we can turn to our Church and our priests for guidance. Sometimes this can be an incredible challenge, especially when our Church finds itself mired in all the muck that she finds herself in today. How can we trust the Church and her ministers lead us to Christ? The simple answer is that we trust God to make it happen. Look at who the magi consulted: Herod the Great was known to be a paranoid, homicidal despot. The Jewish religious authorities had a bad history of killing every prophet they came across. Despite all that, the wise men consulted them and received the truth.
When the wise men arrive, finally, in Bethlehem, the prostrate themselves—a gesture of worship—and give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts each symbolize and reveal something about the child Jesus. Gold shows Jesus’s kingship, frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his humanity. The wise men, who were not even Jewish, recognized in the mystery of the Christ Child something greater than themselves, so they prostrate themselves in worship to him. They offered him lavish gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not easy to come by in the ancient world. We too are called to worship God and offer him good gifts. We worship him most perfectly when we attend Mass and witness the re-presentation of salvation to us. We are called to offer him gifts every moment of our lives, because God wants much more then our treasures: he wants to be on our mind constantly. When we go to work, to school, to the gym, to our sporting events, God is there, waiting for us to acknowledge that he is with us even there.
On this feast, Jesus’s kingship, divinity, and humanity are made manifest by the magi, let us learn from these wise men. Let us ask the Lord for assistance in following him every moment of our lives, so that our eyes may be open to see his work even in the most mundane moments of our lives. Let us ask the Lord for the courage to ask for help when we can’t see him. Let us ask the Lord for the resolve to always be attentive to his worship and in recognition of the many gifts he has given us, to offer some of those gifts back to him.
January 5, 2020
Epiphany of the Lord, Year A
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12