Today we come to the Epiphany – a beautiful feast. Without it Christmas would be incomplete, just as Easter would be incomplete without Pentecost. Without Epiphany – which means “shining out” – we might not fully grasp how broad is God’s embrace of humanity, the universal reach of the Christ-child and his outstretched arms. Today it dawns on us that Christ does not simply have his own physical body, like all of us, but another body large enough for all redeemed humanity, indeed for the whole universe, his mystical body, “the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). This body is the radiant, new Jerusalem Isaiah speaks of: “lift up your eyes and look round: all are assembling and coming towards you, your sons from far away and your daughters being tenderly carried”.
In the Gospel it’s shown so simply, so really. We’ve just heard St Matthew’s account: wise men from the east, star-gazers, cosmologists, searching for connections between the heavens and the earth, hoping in the dark. This story of quest and discovery, and escape from a tyrant, has lodged and settled in so many carols, on so many canvases, in so many flights of imagination. Doesn’t the great 12th century shrine for their relics in Cologne Cathedral stand still for the notion of pilgrimage and search for the truth being Europe’s finest aspiration? Shouldn’t each of us have a shrine to these wisdom-seekers in our hearts. Their gold, their frankincense and myrrh have become symbols of human culture brought to the feet of the Infant-king. They are seekers of God, people on a journey “and such a long journey” (T.S. Eliot), men of hope, starting from their own world and brave enough to enter another:
|Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder star
What can hearten us most, I think, on our own journeys, is the way God engages with them. He speaks to them first in a language they understood, the language of the stars – two planets conjoining and making an unusual brightness. In their philosophy, this was a signal of of something new about to happen. They knew a little too of Jewish prophecy, the hope for a Messiah, a star to rise from Israel. Given that Jewish colonies were found well to the east of the Roman Empire, this is credible. So, even from within their own world, they had these different words to piece together, light for their conscience. They didn’t have to leave their own world, in a sense. But in another they did. They found themselves needing to take a risk, make a venture, make a leap of faith. And they did, risking making fools of themselves, setting off, not unlike Abraham, towards they knew not what. This was more than a physical journey, a ticket from Baghdad to Bethlehem, as it were; it was a spiritual journey too. It entailed a conversion. A change in the way they had hitherto thought and lived and felt. Something more than a star, a child, a new kind of king, had risen on their horizon, and with him a new calibration of how God and man might relate and human beings find ways of reconciliation. The stars remained, of course; still now God speaks through nature and the universe, through the natural world “in many and various ways”. But now “things made sense in a wholly new way” (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 731). Now the words formed a sentence with Christ the subject, every man and woman the object, and love the verb that binds them. Everything re-set around the new King. IT’s a pattern for us.
When they saw him, the wise men crossed a threshold into the Kingdom of God which embraces Gentile and Jew alike. When they entered that house in Bethlehem, they became children themselves, full of wonder, and the Kingdom of God was theirs. they went into. They found it when they saw the Child with Mary his mother, fell down and worshipped him, opening their treasures because grace had already opened their hearts and minds. This is what St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, spells out: “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.” And this is our journey too.
The unnamed magi were pioneers. They foreshadowed what was to come the other side of Pentecost. They were the first of the stream of individuals, tribes, peoples and nations cultures that over two thousand years have made their way to Christ – and now us too.
And here’s a final follow-through. How many of them were there? We always say three, given there were three gifts. But the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that. Another tradition says twelve. The numbers are symbolic. Three means a community, twelve the community we call the Church founded on the twelve apostles. Today, like Pentecost, is a birthday of the Church, that communion of faith, sacraments and structured togetherness we call the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This ship which sails the world and carries us to the harbour of heaven. This body which is Christ’s. It’s God’s will we belong to her. The Holy Spirit is always grafting us in, keeping us on board. The evil spirit, on the other hand – I’m inspired by something Padre Pio once said – is always at work in the contrary sense. That spirit longs to divide families and friends and especially to separate us from the Church, to dissolve the bonds that hold us together. He loves to point out everything that can scandalise us in the Church, past and present – heaven knows there’s plenty – everything that can fill us with high-minded righteous anger. He loves to encourage the centrifugal. And he has completed his work, says St Pio, when he has taken us away from the Mass, from the Eucharist. It happens. I see it happen.
But the gifts lodged in the Church are infinitely greater than Christians’ sins. And the voice of God’s calling and the drawing of his grace is stronger than the clawing of evil. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Today let’s align with the three (or the twelve), indissoluble fellow-travellers. Let’s opt for mutual patience, mutual love, forgiving as we want to be forgiven. Let’s not jump ship. Let’s yield to the kindly light that keeps us one and leads us together to behold his face.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 7 January 2024