The Epiphanies of the Lord

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.

A Story to be Shared

As we approach the culmination of Advent and, on Saturday, celebrate the birth of our Savior, my thoughts turn to a story by Henry Van Dyke, the Story of the Other Wise Man. Artaban prepared to leave with the three other wise men, but missed them by just a few hours. He never managed to catch up, to them. While following the star he encountered people in need. He had sold all of his possessions to go on this journey and purchased three majestic gems: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl to give the king.

Artaban, when he finally reached Israel, became a wanderer throughout Israel and Egypt, always searching for the king he could not find. He consulted scholars, disciples, and sought him ought, but he could not find the king for whom he searched. He sold the sapphire and the ruby he had brought to give to the new-born king, who he did not know, to assist those in need, asking himself, “Should he risk the great reward of his divine faith for the sake of a single deed of human love?” (p. 16)

Finally, after 33 years of searching, “Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem […] and something whispered in his heart that, at last, he might succeed.” (p. 29) Yet, in the final encounter of Artaban’s life, he surrendered the pearl, his final treasure, to save a poor, helpless soul in desperate need. He never made it to meet his king, who was being crucified that day, in fact, at that same moment. The other wise man’s final lament tragically proclaims, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.” (p. 33) In Artaban’s dying moments, a sweet voice proclaims to him, “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” (p. 34)

This story speaks to me during this time of year for so many reasons. How many of us fear that we’ve only just missed to best moments? That if only we had been born a decade earlier, if only we had not fallen into a particular sin while young, if only I hadn’t made that one decision 30 years ago, that if only things were different I would be able to meet Jesus Christ face to face, that following him would be easier? How many of us, on the search to find Jesus Christ, look around us to see the world and the people around us, offering the poor souls we encounter the gifts we have? How often do we not recognize the face of Christ in these same people? How often do we seek to retain that joy of Christmas, only to find out that our journey to meet our King is going to be a life-long journey?

This story proposes so many questions to our hearts, uncomfortable and challenging questions. When we are wandering through the world, seeking an answer for the infinite longing of our hearts, we are like the great crowds in the Bible who sought Jesus: “many wanted to see Jesus, to be healed by him, to meet him.” (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, p. 20) Having taken on human form, Jesus could not have tended to all of his flock himself. “Unable to visit all the towns and villages, he began to send his closest followers to the places he could not reach.” (Giussani, p. 20)

We never know the power of our own witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. We do not know the impact it will have on the hearts of our family, our friends, and even ourselves. If Artaban had not met the disciples of Jesus, he would not have learned that “Those who seek [the King] will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.” (Van Dyke, p. 27) If the apostles and disciples of Jesus had not gone to the ends of the earth, and if the story of Jesus, the story of God’s infinite self-giving love for all humanity, had not been told from generation to generation, none of us would have know. Our faith is a story to be shared, because in each unique story of coming to know Jesus Christ we see another side of his glory. We see another side of his love. We see another side of his mercy.

Contemplating the Christ child this Christmas, let us ponder the question: what is the love story God wants to write in my heart?

Advent Reflections 2021 – Saint Lucy / Third Monday of Advent

“A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”

God Reveals Himself to All

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.

Today’s Readings:
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

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