Epiphany means ‘manifestation.’ But that’s a heavy word. An ‘epiphany’ is an outburst, an explosion, of light and of a light falling on us, lighting us.
This is a beautiful feast, and in the Church’s mind a great one.
Listening to the Gospel, what happens today?
‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.’ What happens today is that Christmas goes ‘viral’, goes global. What till then has been hidden in the village of Bethlehem, given a column perhaps in the Bethlehem Courier or the Shepherds’ Weekly, has suddenly been picked up in Jerusalem by the government – rather ominously – and more importantly far away in the East. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ These mysterious wise men: they browsed and surfed the stars. They’d picked up a message on the screen of the sky. Today the Incarnation breaks loose. Suddenly, it’s out there.
Epiphany is to Christmas rather what Pentecost is to Easter. At Pentecost, the message of Christ’s death and resurrection goes global. People from ‘every nation under heaven’ heard what Peter had to say in their own languages. The Church universal, catholic, was born. And today it’s the same dynamic. To be precise, it’s the sign that it is going to happen. These wise men – searching scientists, religious seekers – were a beginning, the first-fruits of the vast non-Jewish world. ‘All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord’, promises the Psalm. ‘The nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness’, says Isaiah. These and other ancient prophecies had their first realization in today’s heroes. If they came from modern-day Iran, it’s almost a thousand miles from Tehran to Jerusalem, and a good deal further by road. It was a long journey they and their camels had of it. But on they went, gradually unlearning their idolatries, following the star of their search and their conscience, fuelled by inner hope. Pioneers of all who, from Pentecost on, would make the journey to faith, to Bethlehem, to Jesus, us included. ‘This mystery means, says St Paul, ‘that pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ, through the gospel.’ So, Epiphany too is the birthday of the Church universal. It begins the regathering of the Father’s scattered, straying humanity around the person of Jesus. The prodigal Gentiles are coming home. Christianity is global. It’s for every human being and the whole of our humanity. Jesus isn’t someone to be imposed, but proposed. He doesn’t come to crush or diminish us, but to heal us, call out our beauty, make us whole, reconnect us. How much further Christmas, the Incarnation, has to go in each of us and in the world! How not think of China? That great land to our east…
‘We have come to do him homage’. Here’s a second thing. This was their simple goal from the beginning: to worship, to adore. And they reach it, not in Herod’s magnificent Temple, but in a tiny rented house in an insignificant village. ‘And going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage’. There’s no more mention of the star. The Star was now in his mother’s arms. It’s a beautiful moment. It’s a moment of freedom. When these men fall down, all the idols and false gods, all the misguided worship of the pagan world falls with them and turns to dust – and all the treasures of that world can become gifts. We are made to worship, to yield to what is greater and prior to ourselves. Our hearts are that large. Our tragedy is worshipping what, however honourable, doesn’t deserve our whole self. We prefer the created to the Creator, as St Paul neatly puts it. Possessions, pleasure, power, or just our dear old egos. And so we lose our freedom. What the wise men did, Mary was already doing in her heart. It’s what we do in our liturgy, in Eucharistic adoration. It’s where Mother Church is always leading us: to the freedom of the children of God.
‘But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.’ What a Gospel this is! It is our story. We’ve come to faith. We’ve entered the house of the Church, where Mary – the Church – shows us Jesus. We’ve worshipped and offered our gifts. And then we go back to our ‘own country’, our ordinary life. But we go back ‘by a different way’: our attitude, our outlook, changed, with a different way of life – free of the worship of idols, full of the truly divine. Quite naturally, un-self-consciously, the wise men must have become ‘missionary disciples’. They’d found a joy no one could take from them. They must have shone a little. Their wives and children must have sensed a change. They must have aroused curiosity in their colleagues. And ‘warned in a dream’, they just slipped past the hostility of Herod. They didn’t get entangled in useless arguments. They didn’t use political methods. They left the ‘merchants of darkness’ to their own devices. ‘Warned in a dream’, guided by a dream: there’s a wider meaning here too. A star is something outside; a dream is inside. Now they were moved by a ‘dream’, from inside, and their inside was the memory of Christ, the face of that Child. They would never forget him. He was their star and compass and conscience. And now they could live simply.
May each of us have the same dream and be guided by it! May each of us ‘epiphany’ someone greater than ourselves! May all of us long for his light to shine throughout the world!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 7 January 2018)