Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
This weekend the Church celebrates the ancient feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, commemorating and reflecting upon the visit of Magi “from the East” to the crib side of the newborn Savior.
For the first reading, the Church presents a passage 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.
When Persia overtook Babylonia, Persia’s King Cyrus allowed the exiles to leave Babylon and to go to the Holy Land. Surely, the exiles were overjoyed, but their homecoming was bittersweet. The land that they found awaiting them was desolate, untended, forsaken and lifeless.
The prophets insisted that, despite this desolation, times would change for the better because God would not forget the chosen people.
Thus, this reading rejoices in God’s salvation, rather than complaining about bad fortune. He will vindicate the people. In justice and mercy, God will come. The prophecy predicts a great new day.
For the second reading the Church offers us a selection from the Letter to the Ephesians. It is a frank and direct statement that God intends salvation also for the Gentiles, not only for the chosen people.
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.
Only Matthew has the story of the Magi. This story is one of the most profound and expressive revelations in the New Testament. Better to understand 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. It was a term of mystery.
What was the origin of these visitors? All that is known is that they were “from the East.”
Who and what were they? Scholars cannot agree and have never agreed on identifying them precisely.
Some think that they were astrologers, in a time when astrology was heavily associated with theology and philosophy. After all, they followed a star. Others think they were nobles or kings. Another term is Magi, its meaning unclear.
Whatever the answer, they were gifted, learned and very sincere people from someplace far away, earnestly seeking the true God. Art and legend have seen them over the centuries as three in number.
Herod tried to frustrate their search, hoping to remove any threat to his corrupt control over the people. He feared any “newborn king.” Looking for clues, he discovered that according to the Scriptures the Savior would be born in Bethlehem.
Overall, the message is powerful. The Magi, only humans, yearn for God but cannot find God on their own. God assists them with a star in the sky and even evading the evil schemes of Herod.
This wondrous feast teaches a vital lesson. We are limited humans, even sinners. We are helpless in the last analysis. We encounter perplexing questions, just as did the Magi.
Accepting our limitation is critical. We also should examine what we regard as rewarding. Too often we allow ourselves to slip into the role of Herod. We look for security in earthly terms. We make judgments based on earthly instincts, on our own interests. Fear overtakes us.
The Magi needed more than anything that nature could supply. Finally, God richly gave them all that they desired and needed.
The wonder is that if we are sincere, God will reward us and guide us to living in Christ.
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