SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
The word "epiphany" means "manifestation." So what does the word "manifest" mean? Manifest means "to make known." Today we celebrate the great solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, considered to be the apex of the Christmas season. In what way today is the Lord made known?
One would think that the manifestation of the Lord would be considered His birth, which we celebrated on Dec. 25. This is the day when we celebrate His arrival on the human scene, when we welcome Emmanuel, God-with-us, into our midst. Did that not complete the great incarnational event that began when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a son by the Holy Spirit?
In a way yes, but in a way no. While at the Nativity we celebrate the birth of Christ and His arrival to the Jewish people, that is by no means the whole story. For while it is true that Christ, the Messiah, came to the Jews, He did not come only for the Jews. In our first reading today from Isaiah, the prophet says, "Rise up in splendor Jerusalem, your light has come!" But he continues, "Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you." Our psalm today proclaims, "all kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him." And our second reading from Ephesians tells us that "the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus."
This is what is unique about our Catholic faith - that it is catholic. "Catholic" comes from the Greek meaning "of the whole." It is usually translated as "universal." We call it the universal Church not only because she teaches universal truths, but that those truths and the salvation they proclaim are meant for all peoples, of all lands, of all times. There is not a single nation, tribe, clan, family or individual whom Christ did not come to redeem. While Christ is the fulfillment of all that God promised to His chosen people, He is also the extension of that covenant to the whole world.
The event we celebrate today with the arrival of the magi to pay homage and adore the infant Christ is the manifestation - the epiphany - of Jesus' universal kingship. Who were the magi? The Bible is silent as to their names, but tradition gives them as Casper (Gaspar), Melchior and Balthasar. The magi were eastern sages. They were not Jews and there is no reason to believe that they were familiar with Jewish prophecy or scripture. So why would they care about the birth of a baby boy to a young woman in a backwater Jewish province of no real political significance?
The magi were the priestly caste from Persia. We sometimes refer to them as the "wise men" and that is important. For even though there is no reason to believe they were exposed to Jewish traditions or prophecy they did seek out wisdom. In their tradition, in the east, they sought wisdom from the stars. And something they saw in the stars at that time told them that a great king had been born in Bethlehem. And not just any king, but a universal king, such that even though He was born among Jews, these Persian sages felt compelled to make the long and dangerous journey to pay Him homage.
Through the method of learning they looked to for truth and guidance - watching and reading the stars - they came to know the truth of Christ's kingship. They responded to that truth in the only way that seemed appropriate to them. They desired to worship and adore the Lord. The magi are considered to be the first fruits of the Gentiles and the beginning of the Christian faith, bringing in their wake the whole mass of earth's people who would come to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. They were not looking for a Messiah. They did not know the prophecies of Isaiah. But they were seeking the truth.
Like them, we today need to seek out truth. Our minds were made for this task. The Second Vatican Council affirms that God comes to those "who seek God with a sincere heart" (Lumen Gentium 16). Even in non-Christian religions, we recognize "shadows and images" of God, elements of "goodness and truth" that are "a preparation for the Gospel" (CCC 843).
These elements of truth can also be found in the physical sciences, where the open mind can discover signs pointing to the transcendent creator of this magnificent universe. They can be found in the study of history, where can be discovered accounts of the creator-God born among the Jewish people in Israel and working miracles, including His own Resurrection. They can also be found in the lived experiences and examples of those around us who have allowed Christ to enter their lives and forever change them.
When we discover the truth, whoever we are and however it comes to us, there is only one proper response. We need to do what the magi did. We need to realize that in the light of this Truth, nothing can ever be the same. We need to stop what we are doing - leaving behind our old lives if need be - and seek Him out. A King has been born. Come, let us worship.