For us Westerners, the Solemnity of the Epiphany feels a little anti-climactic, perhaps because it lacks the emotional or sentimental aura that has developed through the centuries around the feast of Christmas. To our rational minds, the Epiphany is more “theological,” whereas the story of the angels and shepherds is more “human.” However, in a great part of the developing world, where Christmas does not include the emphasis on gifts piled high under the Christmas tree, it is the story of the Magi that prompts the real celebration of the Incarnation. It is regarded as a Holy Day of Obligation and is celebrated on January 6.
The idea of light dominates the liturgy of this feast: Light – universal symbol of showing the way, of illumination, of warmth and beauty, of all that is implied in the concept of rescue and salvation. The three astrologers announce, “We have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” When they see that star, their lives are immediately changed. They pack up and travel literally hundreds of miles to find the Light, the one who will lead humanity out of the darkness of sin.
Let us not forget that the astrologers came from the pagan nations and that they were themselves pagans. It is a terribly significant detail that can sometimes be lost. Their presence in the Gospel of St. Matthew, himself a Jew, means that the Chosen People are not the only ones that God chooses. Though the Jewish people regard Gentiles as without the direct contact with God that they had been granted, Matthew demonstrates through them that all people who seek can actually find God. The astrologers remind us that men and women throughout the world hunger for God; it is hunger for God that drove them to travel to Bethlehem. Today we celebrate that God’s universal hunger and love is for all peoples, regardless of nation, race, or place of origin. God desires to be known by all of humankind. Jesus is the revelation of that desire.
The story includes an exchange of gifts. The visitors receive a life-changing revelation of the mystery and love of the one true God, and in return they bring God’s Son the riches of their native lands.
Ideas like these do not necessarily warm the heart. However, one cannot escape the fact that when the astrologers find the Child and his parents, they prostrate themselves before them. Prostration, the act of lying flat on the ground, can only be interpreted in one way. These pagan visitors realize that they are in the presence of something greater than they. This is not a simple bow or a genuflection. They are so utterly amazed by what they have found that they literally try to make themselves small in the face of an awesome sight. They have found a child, a baby. However, they realize with the eyes of faith that they have found God.
At the end of the story, Matthew tells us that they went home by a different route. There is a very good reason for this choice. They do not want to let Herod know what they have found because they realize the threat that this child poses to Herod. However, there is a far more important reason for their choice. They cannot return the same way they came because they are now different than they were. Because they are different men, their route home must be different.
The opening prayer for this particular day is the most daring of prayers. “Father of light, your light is strong, your love is near. Draw us beyond the limits which this world imposes to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete.” Like the Magi who were changed by the experience of seeing God, we ask God to change us so that we will not go back to living life by the social norms which attempt to choke the revelation of God’s light and love from our hearts. We realize that the selfish desire for power, the greed for possessions, the hatred for those who are different were all meant to be erased by the illumination that God provides us through the manifestation of Jesus in our midst.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator