Feast of the Epiphany
January 03, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 60:1-5 | Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A;5-6 | Matthew 2:1-12
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
What is an epiphany? That word comes from a Greek word, “epiphainein meaning ‘reveal’”. Secular dictionaries define it as an unusually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something, such as an event, usually simple and striking; or an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.
In the secular sense, I am personally familiar with epiphanies. I experience them regularly as a composer of church music. Those in other creative endeavors, such as portrait painters like Deacon Sharon, experience similar moments. That experience fits the secular definition of an “epiphany.” It is the “a-ha” moment when we suddenly come to a solution to rectify a perplexing situation. It often comes as a surprise, something we least expect.
In a theological sense, however, an epiphany means something different. For theologians, an epiphany is a manifestation, that is, a showing, of a divinity. A closely related term is “theophany”, meaning the manifestation of God to humankind. In fact, that’s what the Eastern Church calls the feast we celebrate today. They call it the Feast of the “Theophany.” They use January sixth to celebrate the baptism of Jesus rather than the arrival of Magi. However, both events involve a presentation of divinity. As you will hear next week, the Baptism of Jesus featured a theophany when God’s voice spoke from the heavens proclaiming Jesus as his beloved Son.
Today, however, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi. Since Jesus, after all, is divine as well as human, today qualifies as a theophany. God spoke to the Magi by putting a bright star in the sky. Today’s Gospel tells us the Magi were “from the East” but doesn’t tell us their exact origin. Legend says there were three of them, perhaps because Jesus was given the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Gospel is silent as to exactly how many.
Tradition holds that the Magi were an already well-established and ancient upper class of people from the Persian Empire in today’s northern Iran. The Magi were pagan priests, specializing in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. Skilled in philosophy, medicine, and natural science, they became the scholars of Persian society. Early Christian scholars held the tradition that the Magi, although pagans, were deeply religious priest-philosophers who collected wisdom from wherever they could get it. They were believed to be followers of the Zoroastrian religious tradition, whose three main tenets are: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, with a heavy emphasis on spreading goodwill through charitable endeavors. That’s not too far off from what both Jews and Christians teach.
So what motivated them to visit Jesus? The Magi likely had direct contact with those Hebrews who remained in the east following the Babylonian captivity, so they would have surely been familiar with their prophecies of a savior king. Although the Magi were not “kings” in the sense perceived by western legends, that is, a ruler governing people, the Magi were regarded as men of aristocratic rank even in Jerusalem, which is made apparent by their easy access to King Herod’s court.
Herod, however, was a rather perfidious individual, who, for his own personal advantage, planted one foot in Judaism and another in Rome. Herod’s family was converted to Judaism. Herod’s faithfulness to Jewish traditions was questionable. While Herod publicly identified himself as a Jew and was considered as such by some, the decadent lifestyle of the Herodians undermined his religious identification as such, earning them the antipathy of observant Jews.
Herod’s position as ruler did not arise from the consent of the Jews whom he ruled. Rather, Herod rose to power with the conquest of Palestine by the Roman leader Pompey in about sixty-three B-C. The Roman Senate placed him in that position with the title “King of the Jews” based on connections his father, named Antipater, had with Julius Caesar. He was expected to keep the Jewish population in line for Rome’s benefit.
Herod’s agenda was remaining in power. A number of political and military forces kept him constantly on edge. He was so insecure that he felt extremely jealous of any person or event that could supplant him. As we read in today’s Gospel from Matthew, Herod, known for his cruelty, summoned the Magi because their inquiries into the birth of Jesus aroused his jealousy.
Herod wanted to use the Magi to locate Jesus in order to have him killed. In fact, shortly thereafter, according to the portion of Matthew that follows today’s Gospel reading, Herod ordered the killing of all male children under the age of two. In fact, that included Herod’s own son. In those days, it was probably better to be a pig than Herod’s son, since the Jews of that era did not slaughter pigs for food. So after the Magi departed from Jesus, they did not go back to Herod but went home by another road to avoid encountering Herod or his representatives. Later events proved that the Magi felt a very accurate premonition that Herod was up to no good, so they acted to protect Jesus.
What this says is that Jesus was so significant that he incited fears in Herod. Thus, Jesus, even as an infant, with his mere presence displayed power beyond that of ordinary people. The Magi recognized his significance by treating him as a king. As today’s Gospel tells us, the Magi recognized his divinity by their adoration of him.
The visit from the Magi was the first encounter of Jesus with humanity outside of the Jewish society into which he was born. It was a recognition that Jesus was not the forecasted messiah-king of the Jewish prophets but the savior of the world. The meeting of Jesus and the Magi was an interfaith encounter of the first order, a statement that Jesus is significant to humanity as a whole, Jew and gentile alike. This was event was a prophecy in and of itself as proven by subsequent events in the life of Jesus as shown by his encounters with not only Jews but Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans as well. The meeting between Jesus and the Magi also prophesized the development of the Church as we read in the Book of Acts of a concerted effort to recruit both Jews and Gentiles as followers of Jesus.
The manifestation of God among us by way of the visit of the Magi changes the ways in which we perceive one another. Christ’s birth provides us with the light by which we see a new criterion for relating. The Magi who come in faith to worship the child represents the multi-ethnic and cultural diversity in civic and parish situations as well as the many religions of the world. Through music, which is our primary mediation of spirituality, we will continue to integrate music from multiple cultures into our worship, particularly from the Hispanic world.
In Jesus, we are part of the Body of Christ which is the Church, but we are related no longer merely by blood affiliation or national origin. Jesus offers the spirit of holiness as the ground for our relationships. Such a new and universal belonging will be manifest both here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. We will not live in the darkness of exclusivity. Everyone, regardless of race or ethnic origin, can and will be co-heirs with Christ in the Kingdom of God.
Today’s First reading implores us to “arise and shine”. The reading is from Third Isaiah, written to inspire the Jews returning to Jerusalem from the darkness of the Babylonian exile. The writer of Third Isaiah prophesized that Jerusalem will once again shine in all its glory inspiring all humanity just as the Star of Bethlehem later inspired the Magi to journey to Jesus
Just as a bright star inspired the Magi to be with Jesus, perhaps a more recent very bright Star should inspire us to be like Jesus. This year on December twenty-one the world witnessed the conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, which for several minutes appeared together as a very bright star. Some astronomers believe that such an event was responsible for the Star of Bethlehem the Magi saw.
So was the bright star we saw two weeks ago God’s sign to the world in the midst of a pandemic? Is it, for us, the equivalent of the Star of Bethlehem, that should motivate human action of some kind? Like the Star of Bethlehem, the values of Jesus can that Star unite all humanity to a reign of God’s justice. What is God’s justice? It is not punishment for wrongdoing. For Christians, to act justly is to act with love. That is where I pray the United States is headed.
In about three weeks, we will witness the inauguration of a new President, whom, I hope, will take his cues from Jesus for his inaugural address. Jesus gave an inaugural address of his own at the beginning of his ministry that has some pretty good ideas. As recounted in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announced that His mission was going to be directed toward the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
In proclaiming those ideas, Jesus signaled that his heart would be toward those who were lost, the who were least, and those who were last. As can be expected, Jesus spoke with the utmost integrity. He did what he said he would do. His recorded life included many examples of ministry to those who were on the margins of society.
A just society, even in times of emergencies and pandemics, will reflect the priorities of Jesus towards the most vulnerable. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the very public vaccinations of government officials. We have also seen hospitals ration care in favor of those most likely to survive. Those policies are immoral. Public policies to give priority to vaccinating people based on their occupation, rather than their vulnerability, and to triage hospital patients for care priorities based on survival of the fittest, is the very antithesis of the principles of God’s justice to protect the most vulnerable. We should be protesting loudly against that. While those priorities do make sense to the secular rational mind in the secular world, they are not the priorities to which the Star of Bethlehem calls us.
Given today’s events, the bright star that we saw on December twenty-one very well could be a sign from God telling us to do something. This light, this light of God, should make known to us the ways in which the most vulnerable among us are acknowledged and receive care, that is, those sick with Covid and those most likely to get it. That leads me to ask, why isn’t the United States building more hospitals, importing healthcare workers from overseas, and prioritizing the most vulnerable populations for vaccination? The short answer is “politics,” but nonetheless, that is not the result to which God’s justice calls us.
In the words of today’s psalm, God’s priority is to rescue the poor and the afflicted when no one is there to help them, to have pity for the lowly and the poor. Instead, this pandemic has brought us a government that closes down businesses and throws people out of work, causing many of them to waste time waiting in long food lines.
The recent pandemic relief legislation is nowhere sufficient to make workers and small businesses whole. Those opposing sufficient aid prattle nonsense about the Federal deficit and moral hazard, but to starving people, those abstract concepts mean nothing. The Star of Bethlehem should be leading us in an entirely different direction.
Led by that star, the Magi came searching for a king. Their background in astrology made them attentive to the marvels of the universe where they have read signs in the heavens. They represent all who search for truth in the wonders of creation and in the wisdom of their own cultures of origin.
The departure of the Magi from their homelands, as soon as they saw the star, has always been a symbol of the response of faith. Faith is described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In their journey to Jesus, the Magi very early acquired a place in Christian iconography because they were seen as models for the faithful; as soon as they were called, they responded with faith.
Because they searched with eyes of faith, they were able to recognize the gift of God when they found Jesus, even though he did not have the kingly appearance they may have been expecting. Instead, they found a child born in a stable to an unwed Jewish teenager. That scene must have jarred their sensibility as it did not conform to their initial perception of a royal heir. However, with God, we can always expect that when God appears to us, we can always expect the unexpected. God is the ultimate mystery, whose ways and motives are always far beyond human understanding.
What became immediately apparent to the Magi is that they were Gentiles while Jesus was a Jew. But as our Second Reading tells us, Jews and Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Jesus through the gospel.
The Magi were Gentiles who followed the light of the Star of Bethlehem to find Jesus as the new king whose reign would bring justice and righteousness into human affairs. That he was a Jew and they were Gentiles no longer mattered. They returned home, enlightened by their visit to God’s place of revelation. Their encounter shows that in Jesus, the light of God is given to all people of good will, Jew and Gentile alike. In the realm of social justice, your place on society’s total pole should not matter. Yes, God loves rich and poor alike, but with Jesus, a preferential option for the poor matters greatly.
The Magi set an important example for us. The Magi were the first in a procession of countless people who have journeyed toward Jesus. We can do what they did. We can allow our hope for things yet unseen to impel our search for a light to guide us and bring others along with us. That light for us is Jesus. As the light of the Star of Bethlehem revealed Jesus to the Magi, the light that is Jesus reveals to us God’s justice.
The light we receive from Jesus can never be hidden under a basket but always set on a lampstand. Many people, however do not see themselves as having a role to be a light to the world, so they cease to be lights amid the world’s darkness. They are either obliviously stuck with their heads in the sand of their own individual concerns, or are immersed in the pursuit of money and/or power. But humanity has the courage to change that, and the way to change that, is Jesus. AMEN.