Sunday, January 5, 2020 – Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Is 60:1-6; Ps 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ep 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
- Praised be Jesus Christ!
- Now and for ever. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We come today to the formal end of the Christmas season – hard to believe that it’s been 12 days already, eh? You may now throw out your Christmas tree – Father Bluenose says it’s okay. Christmas is over.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany celebrates the “revelation of the (All-)Highest”; that is, God-made-Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, the incarnate Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, is “revealed” as the All-Highest by the arrival of potentates from the East, about whom I’ll say more in a moment. At the Epiphany, we come, also, to the conclusion of the sequence of revelations which have characterized Our Lord’s earthly ministry from before he was even born. There were three of them – a scripturally- and theologically-significant number! – and the order in which the revelations were made is significant for understanding the identity and ministry of Jesus.
First, He was revealed to Mary, his mother-to-be, in the message of an angel. We need not go over Luke’s majestic account of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38); it is one of the best-known passages of the New Testament. Next, He was revealed to Joseph, who was a righteous man (cf. Mt. 1:19) and, as such, a bit straitjacketed mentally. Not being privy to the Annunciation, he determined to be rid of his betrothed, who turned up pregnant without her husband having had the pleasure of impregnating her.
Scarcely had Joseph formed the intent to divorce Mary quietly, when he was visited in a dream by an angel, who basically repeated what the Angel Gabriel had told Mary: that the child Mary was carrying in her womb was the product of a supernatural, divinely-ordered union. Joseph believed, and, being a “righteous man” (we would say he was strengthened by Grace), stepped boldly into his role as the foster-father of Jesus. That is the two-part first revelation of Jesus as the All-Highest.
The second revelation was to the shepherds who were “living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.” (Lk. 2:8) The shepherds represent the Children of Israel; that is, the Hebrew people. They were of the land; a land flowing with milk and honey; a land which God had promised to give to their ancestors, and did give to them. In the interim, their ancestors had displeased God and forfeited their inheritance from Him, been driven off the land, driven into exile, redeemed by a temporal ruler (King Cyrus II the Great of Persia) and prophesied to of a coming Messiah who would Israel to a right relationship with her God. The shepherds were not trained in the Law; they probably could not read at all. But they were humble children of Israel, doing what God had intended the children of Israel to do when He delivered them to the Promised Land: they had entered into and taken possession of the land, and were enjoying the fruits of their labor on that land. It is to them, humble shepherds who “bore the smell of their sheep” – not to the perfumed and powdered Pharisees and scribes, sleeping in comfortable beds in Jerusalem! – to whom the cacophonous, raucous celebration of celebration of Heaven at the Nativity of the Lord revealed, through the message of an angel, that “a child is born to you.”
The third revelation is what we commemorate today: the arrival of the pagan, animistic, non-Jewish world, represented by the three (or however many) kings (or whatever they were) bearing gold fit for a king, frankincense “which owns a deity nigh,” and myrrh, the “bitter perfume” that heralded the saving death that the All-Highest would die. These kings, or magicians, came to do homage to the Lord of Creation shortly after His entrance into Creation.
Who were these people? That they were not Jews is clear from the fact that when they arrived in Jerusalem, they asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2) – not, “Where is our newborn king?” Matthew refers to them as “magi,” which suggests that they were capable of performing “magic” – that is, wonders based on advanced, or arcane knowledge. Other opinions say that they were astronomers, who had predicted the coming of a particularly-bright star, which would herald some great even on earth. Alternately, they have been described as “kings”; the term “magus” may be a corruption of the Latin “magister,” or master, indicating a person of authority. Again, “magi,” in the plural, has a certain relationship to the Arabic word “masjid,” or “majid,” meaning “market,” which suggests that the men were merchants – and, thus, wealthy and cosmopolitan, with ready access to the expensive gifts they brought to lay before the Child.
Whatever their background, whatever their status and role in life, the fact that they came from the East, as Matthew specifies (cf. Mt 2:1) is significant. If we accept the notion that I expressed earlier, that the Magi represent the pagan world coming to do Christ homage, then the journey of the Magi recapitulates, it traces the steps, that Abram (before he was Abraham) took when he came forth from “Ur of the Chaldees,” as the Proclamation of Christmas reminded us 12 days ago. In the same way that Abram, who was not yet the father of nations that he would become, came forth from the Fertile Crescent at the beginning of salvation history, so too do these latter-day devotees of the Living God come from the same area, representing the submission of the non-Jewish world to the King of the Jews.
The arrival of the Magi, the submission of the non-Jewish world to the King of the Jews, completes and perfects the Epiphany; that is, the revelation of the All-Highest. The co-equal and co-eternal Son of God, Jesus, had been revealed, successively, to the specially-graced (first Mary, then Joseph); to the “great unwashed” (the shepherds); and, finally, to the Gentiles. It is fitting and right that we conclude the season of Christmas, which celebrates the coming of the Messiah in the flesh, by celebrating the truth that the Gentile Magi taught: that Jesus is not merely the Son of God, but is God Himself.
What does this mean for us, more than 2,000 years after the fact? How should we respond to the declarations that the Magi made in bringing their gifts: that the Child is a King; that He is God; that He is Victim? We must make our way spiritually to the place where He lay, to receive His visitors. We must see this audience from both perspectives: of God receiving His supplicants, when we understand and share and emulate the adoration and worship that they offered to Him; and of supplicants approaching the Holy of Holies, falling down in worshipful adoration of Him Who above all others is worthy of worship. If we are willing to approach Our Lord and Master with the same humility and joy as the Magi, and to accept the welcome that He offers to us as He offered to them, then we will be able truly to complete and perfect, in our own hearts, the revelation of the All-Highest that is the fit culmination of the Christmas season.