My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we continue our celebration of Christmas with the great feast of the Epiphany. Each year this celebration draws our attention to the story of the wise travelers who left their native lands and the comfort of their homes to seek out a newborn king, the king whose birth was heralded by a new light in the heavens which guided their way. The appearance, homage and gifts of these mysterious visitors are understood to fulfill the poetic words of our first reading in which the prophet Isaiah points to the day when all nations will walk in the light of salvation dawning over Jerusalem. At first the message of salvation’s dawn was given to the simple, poor and vulnerable shepherds of Judea. But then it was also revealed to the wise, wealthy and powerful magi from afar so that they might also come to witness the mystery of God’s Word, God’s Love, God’s salvation, made flesh in a tiny babe born in the tiny village of Bethlehem. In other words, God extends this gift of salvation to all peoples.
Just as the story from today’s gospel brings all nations into the light of salvation, so also does St. Paul emphasize the fact that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior, not only of the Jewish people, but also of the gentiles. The brief passage from his letter to the Ephesians that we heard in our second reading summarizes this Good News: “… it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
In this way, the feast of the Epiphany celebrates the generosity of God, who invites all peoples to experience the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the same force that drew shepherds and magi to the Christ child has also drawn us together in this celebration. God’s invitation has touched us!
That is wonderful, isn’t it! And yet, this year something else strikes me in today’s gospel. For some reason, I am struck on this feast of the Epiphany by the different reactions that we find in today’s gospel in response to the invitation to welcome salvation’s dawn. And in these different reactions, I believe we might just learn something about ourselves.
On the one had we see the response of the magi. These wise persons were on the look-out for signs that would point to significant events in the world about them. Looking beyond the confines of their own traditions, cultures, treasured beliefs, and familiar surroundings, they actively were looking for changes in the world about them. One might say that they were looking for the “signs of the times.” And so, when a significant sign appeared in the heavens, they were willing to risk all in order to seek out the cause and meaning of the new light that shone in the heavens above them. They set forth into unknown territory, without a clear understanding of where they were going or of what they would find when they arrived at that unknown destination. As a result, they were able to find what they desired and they were transformed by the gift of the child Jesus. They were changed by what they found, and returned to their native lands by a different way.
On the other hand, we have the figure of King Herod and his many retainers. At first, Herod was not even aware of what was happening in his own domain – in his own back yard as it were. And then, when the foreigners made him aware of the sign that something new and momentous was taking place, his reaction was less than positive. He was deeply troubled by this “sign” that was hanging right over his head, and the people under his rule were also troubled. And then, when his own scholars confirmed that something very special might be happening, he reacted not with joy, but rather with fear. He feared change in his life. He feared that he was about loose control of his kingdom. What is more, he was so blinded by this fear that he utilized deceit and lies in an attempt to manipulate others to his own end. In fact, as we know, he eventually ordered the mass murder of children in Bethlehem in order to hang onto the sense of position, power, security and control that he had in his life.
How different the stories of the magi and of Herod the King! And yet, how well they represent situations that we can readily observe in our world today! The birth of Jesus still brings the light of salvation in to our world and our lives. The generosity still invites all peoples to recognize him Jesus the gift of salvation that is offered by God to a world that still stumbles in the dark shadows of death. And, yes, we still can see many examples of those who are able to recognize and are willing to seek the life-changing light of Christ, as well as those who are so blinded by their own sense of security and control that they are willing to do anything to snuff out the light of Christ.
But before we begin to evaluate others in this regard, we would do well on this day of Epiphany to ask ourselves where we find ourselves in this regard. Each of us could ask ourselves: “Am I looking for the light of salvation in my life? Am I, like the magi, willing to leave behind all that I know in order to seek the Christ child and God’s gift of salvation? Am I, like the Magi, open to being surprised and changed by God, so that I find a new path to my home? Or am I, like Herod, blind to the signs of God’s salvation that appear right in front of me? Am I, like Herod, so fearful of losing my sense of security, position and control that I am blinded to invitation of God’s salvation? Am I, like Herod, dishonest with myself and with others, in order to avoid a true encounter with Jesus? Am I so attached to my “kingdom” that I am greatly troubled by anything or anyone who would threaten it? Am I figuratively willing to kill any new life that would threaten that to which I have become comfortable?
These might be difficult questions to ask on one of the greatest feasts of our year as a community of faith. And yet, if we do not allow the stories of the birth of Jesus challenge us, we are probably now willing to allow them to transform and save us.
My dear confreres and friends, on this feast of Epiphany we bask in the light of the dawn of our salvation and rejoice that the God is so generous that all peoples are invited to bask in the light of this beautiful day. Even as we celebrate this feast with special solemnity, however, may we follow the example of the magi rather than that of Herod the powerful king! May we be willing to risk all that we know in order to follow the light of Christ! May we be willing to let go of the kingdoms we have built for ourselves in order to be secure, so that we might receive the kingdom that God offers to us: a kingdom of peace and salvation that far exceeds anything that we have known or can imagine. It is up to us to bow before the Lord who offers us salvation, and to hand over the treasures that we have saved up for ourselves. If we do this, then we will be transformed, and we will journey on a new path – the path of God’s saving love.