Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
This weekend the Church celebrates the ancient feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, reflecting upon the visit of Magi “from the East” to the crib side of the newborn Savior.
The first reading is from the third and last section of Isaiah. After four generations of exile in Babylon, survivors, or descendants of survivors, of the long-past Babylonian conquest of the Holy Land finally were able to return to their homeland.
It was because Persia, in turn, had overtaken Babylonia. Persia’s King Cyrus allowed the exiles to leave Babylon and to return to the Holy Land. However, the homecoming was bittersweet. The land to which they returned after so many years was desolate and bleak.
The prophet insisted that, in spite of this desolation, times would change for the better, because God would not forget the Chosen People. God will vindicate the people, delivering them from all their woes. The prophecy predicts a great, blessed and secure new day.
In the second reading, from the Epistle to the Ephesians, is the frank and direct statement that God intends salvation also for the Gentiles, not only for the Chosen People. No one is beyond the range of divine love and mercy.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. Among the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke refer to the conception, birth and very early life of Jesus. Mark and John are silent on these subjects.
Between Matthew and Luke, only Matthew has the story of the Magi, but this story is one of the most profound and expressive revelations in the New Testament. Understanding it requires recognizing the symbols and images contained in the passage.
First, the Gospel speaks of visitors “from the East.” “From the East” was a phrase referring to much more than a direction of the compass. It meant a distant and unknown place. What was the origin of these visitors? All that is known is that they were “from the East.”
Who and what were they? Scholars have not agreed on a translation of the term. Some have thought that they were astrologers, in a time when astrology was heavily associated with theology and philosophy. Others thought they were nobles or kings. The meaning of “Magi” is unclear.
How many were in their number? We do not know, because Matthew does not tell us. Art and legend have seen them over the centuries as three in number. Regardless, they were gifted, learned and very sincere, earnestly seeking God.
Herod wanted to remove any competition this newborn King might create. He discovers that according to the Scriptures, the Savior will be born in Bethlehem.
Central to the story is that in searching for the Lord, the Magi followed a star in the sky. God was guiding them.
A modern Christmas song has an especially relevant message for Epiphany. The song is “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” with words by Adger M. Pace and music by R. Fisher Boyce, arranged by Tom Fittke. It says that by following the beautiful star of Bethlehem in our own lives, we will reach the “land of perfect day.”
The Epiphany is much more than a commemoration. It is a call to us to follow God’s beckoning to live in a place of endless light and warmth, the kingdom where Jesus reigns supreme.
Too often, we allow ourselves in effect to slip into the role of Herod. We resist or outright reject God by living as our instincts or limited human misconceptions prompt us. We live in darkness and in coldness, enslaved by temptation and blindness.
The wonder is that there is a “land of perfect day,” and Christ, the light of the world, guides us to it — if we simply choose to follow.
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