“The riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of the nations come to you.”
The word “Epiphany” means manifestation. Something hitherto invisible becomes visible, something previously hidden shines out. There’s splendour around, “the glory of the Lord”. And it evokes a response.
In the 2nd reading St Paul speaks of a mystery “unknown to the people of past generations” now being “revealed”. And the magi, the pagans, the Gentiles respond. A star shone in the night sky and drew them from the East, perhaps the same great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that was in our night sky on the 21st December. A physical light led them to the spiritual light, a lesser light to the greater light, “the true light that enlightens all men”. And faith responds.
How taken aback Mary and Joseph must have been when these strange figures drew aside the curtain and came in, and fell to their knees, and offered the Child their sumptuous gifts.
This feast proclaims just how attractive Jesus is. He draws us. The Christmas Gospels show this. Think how from the Annunciation onwards, Mary must have been drawn to the son she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Drawn in mind and will through her engagement with the angel; drawn in joy as the child took root inside her; drawn in soul and spirit when she sang the Magnificat; drawn in her heart where she pondered every word about him. How glued to him she must have felt when she had him in her arms! Joseph too, surely, was drawn surely, by his Annunciation: “do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” “And he did as the angel commanded him”. I’m sure! Think of John the Baptist giving a leap in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Think of the shepherds after their annunciation: “Let’s go over to Bethlehem…and they went with haste.” Forty days later, “inspired by the Holy Spirit”, the old man Simeon “comes to the Temple” and sweeps Mary’s child up into his arms, and Anna “comes up at that very hour.” T.S. Eliot speaks of the “drawing of this love and the voice of this calling”. Christ draws and calls and attracts. All these felt it. And with the Magi from the east, the screen widens, the reach extends. “We have seen his star”, they say: it was Christ appearing, appealing to their eyes. “And we have come”: Christ drawing their feet, despite “a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey” (Lacelot Andrewes). “Where is he?” they ask in Jerusalem; Christ is already honey in their mouth, someone they loved to speak about. And when they reach Bethlehem, the sight of the Child gently pulls them to their knees, and opens their hands as they spill out their gifts. Their whole selves, their whole anatomy, their body, soul and spirit have been drawn to the Infant King on his mother’s lap. They are captivated, worshipping men. The shepherds had already been enthralled- local guys, rough, working men, poor Jews like Jesus. Now it is sophisticated astronomers, scientists, sages, and not Jews, but Gentiles. “The riches of the sea, the wealth of the nations.” No wonder that legends, good legends, have multiplied. One wise man was young, another middle-aged, the third elderly: Christ draws at any age. One was from India, another from Africa, another from Europe: from every known continent of the time. “The drawing of this love and the voice of this calling.”
And all this just a beginning, a morning-star, when Jesus is merely a child, a first, very modest epiphany. There was so much more “epiphany” to come. The other epiphany of his baptism and the third of water blushing into wine; or the bread multiplied by the lake or the haemorrhaging woman touching his hem or Lazarus raised. The Beatitudes spoken, the Lord’s Prayer handed over, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son told. “I am the Vine and you are the branches”, and this bread is my Body and this cup holds my Blood. And so “he stretched out his hands in the Passion to break the bonds of death and manifest the Resurrection.” This is the Epiphany rolled out, as it were, in his public life and Paschal mystery, to be rolled out through time as the Gospel goes forth and the Eucharist gathers. After the Magi so many more, year after year, will feel the attraction: “the riches of the sea and the wealth of nations”. People will believe and follow. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people, all things to myself.” “The pagans now share the same inheritance, they are parts of the same body, and the same promise has been made to them.” The Psalm is fulfilled. “For he shall save the poor when they cry / and the needy who are helpless. / He will have pity on the weak / and save the lives of the poor.” It is the poor who feel the pull of this poor man who is God. And he can draw from anywhere, any hole, any mess, any sin.
Epiphany happens when something previously hidden shines out. What shines out today is the power of Christ the Light to attract. He shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The Glory may strike unexpectedly and interrupt lives, or steal up imperceptibly. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil” (Hopkins) or burn, steadily growing, through a lifetime. It may seem to flicker but then rekindle. “Kindly light”, it can lead out of any darkness.
Christ the Uniquely Loveable, Christ the Attractive, Christ the Star who draws. Jew and Gentile, great and small, young and old, woman and man. This is the message of this feast. And it looks to the great Epiphany of his Coming again when this will be fully unleashed and fully received, “a great crowd which no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…and crying out, Victory!”
We all hope that with the help of the vaccine this year will bring us a victory. But I have a hunch we’ll still need a lot of mutual support and inner resource, even more maybe. This feast is given as we enter 2021. It’s a feast of coming together and of our Lord rising like a Star in our hearts. I pray that as Catholics, however tiered up or locked down we be, we won’t stop feeling the pull of the Holy Eucharist. I pray we may be inwardly lifted up by the Star Jesus is, and sense his attraction. This will carry us through everything. Let’s turn to Mary and ask for a great draught of the love she felt for the Child she held in her arms.