Seventh in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
There is a small chapel in a corner one of Boston’s busiest shopping centers, operated by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. And during the day in this chapel, the Blessed Sacrament stands exposed on the altar, on display for people to visit and adore. I’ve sat before my Lord Brother many times here. I’ve spoken to Him, and I’ve let Him speak to me. And one of the more amazing thoughts I’ve had there is how amazing it is that He sits there every day, facing the glass doors of the chapel, looking out to the shopping center on the other side, seeing the entire world walk right by Him. Perhaps they don’t realize He’s there; perhaps they do but don’t understand why; perhaps they don’t realize they can come in and just be with Him; perhaps they feel they do not have the time; perhaps they feel unworthy; perhaps they simply don’t believe. I don’t pretend to know the reasons, but I am amazed all the same.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, a feast even older than the feast we know as Christmas. This feast originated in the East and celebrates another side of the Christmas mystery. Until now we have been focusing primarily on the earthy, fleshy fact of the Incarnation: God assuming to Himself full humanity without the loss of His full divinity. This feast takes this mystery and orients it within the mystical history of revelation, the steps throughout and within time by which God has progressively manifested Himself to humanity: first to a select few persons, then to a family, then to an entire nation, and at last to all peoples. That is, after all, what the word “epiphany” (Greek, epiphaneia) means: manifestation, making evident, making known.
The First Reading gives us a prophetic context for the manifestation we celebrate today. It’s taken from the last part of the Book of Isaiah, which comes from after the end of the exile as Judea tried to shake itself out of depression and rebuild. It speaks much in the same vein as the prophet from which it takes its name: light shines in darkness, the LORD dawns over His people, and Israel as a beacon and example for other nations. But this writing goes further: just as Israel continues to be gathered together from the nations, the people of those nations themselves will come to Jerusalem with all their wealth and splendor, and the LORD will be worshiped by all nations with Israel as His center. This is not to happen by conquest or through cosmic games of chess among surrounding empires, but by sheer attraction. The light that shines upon Israel will be so strong that all other nations will come to see by it. This prophecy is fulfilled, in the vision of the Gospel of Matthew, by the arrival of the wise men (Latin, magi) from the East to Jerusalem, seeking the newborn King whose birth they have read in the stars, and by the gifts they bring of gold, frankincense and myrrh – tribute fit for a divine ruler.
In the visit of the wise men to the Christ-child, the God of Israel manifests Himself as Himself – for the first time since before Israel – to non-Israelites. The light of the Incarnate God at last draws the nations to “come to do Him homage.” Our Second Reading makes plain the implications of these events. In his letter to the Asian churches concerning the unity of the entire Church, he calls the Gentiles (or, non-Jews) “co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise.” It is this idea, that the salvation effected by the Christ is not exclusive to the Jewish people, that infinitely widens that already-unfathomable mercy and grace of the Incarnation itself. Paul’s understanding of this mystery, which he tells us was “made known to [him] by revelation,” helps us to see the ever-bigger picture of what Christmas means.
In the Nativity we recall the physical presence of God coming into a small stall in a small city in a forgotten corner of the world among a small race of people that God embraced as His own by revealing Himself to them centuries earlier through miracle and law. In the Epiphany we see that that people has expanded to include all races and all cities in all corners of the world, and that that presence – still physical in the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament – is available to each and every person who chooses to accept Him. Why should we not rise up at the promise of so great a gift? Why should we not prostrate ourselves before such mind-bending generosity? God, Who knows the intimate thoughts of every human mind and heart, has manifested Himself to us in intimacy, sharing our nature, our weaknesses, our very DNA – and continues to manifest Himself every day in the consecrated food and drink of the Eucharist.
The next time you step into a church, or read the Christmas story, or look upon a crucifix – or if you should find yourself before the Blessed Sacrament in a small chapel in a corner of a busy shopping center – stop for 30 seconds and ponder the full implications of what you see there and let God reveal Himself to you there. Let Him make Himself known to you as Himself. “Raise your eyes and look about” at those who come to see Him every week or every day, for an hour or four hours or ten minutes, who speak to Him and let Him speak to them. And whether you’re a full believer or not, let yourself be amazed.
Don’t pretend to know all the reasons, but be amazed all the same.