This wonderful homily is for the Feast of the Epiphany, Year B.
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
I suppose everybody loves this special feast today, the Epiphany. The Epiphany means the manifestation of the Lord and, of course, the reason it is so special in our liturgy is because before there was Christmas celebrated in the church, the ancient church, there was the Epiphany.
In fact, the Epiphany was the main feast that was celebrated. And the Epiphany had an octave after it, and masses before it, and all that we tend to think about Christmas was done, from the old Roman Catholic and the Eastern church, it was done on the feast of the Epiphany.
That strikes us as perhaps a little strange because we think of Christmas as the central feast, which it has become.The central feast is celebrating the incarnation and that, of course, is Christmas.
But if you give it a little thought you can understand the church fathers. Because the church fathers were mostly men who saw not so much the birth as being important, but the manifestation that this child, the Son of God, was for all peoples, east and west.
It would be a good thing if we kept this in mind during these days. Jesus, the Messiah, the Holy One of God, is given to all people, whether you believe in Him or not, whether you serve Him and pay homage to Him, whether you take Him into your heart or whether you ignore Him, or perhaps are yet to hear of the wonders of his salvation.
All of these things are not important.
What is important is the child comes for all of us.
And that teaches a great lesson about ourselves, especially when we think of wars, especially when we think of our divisions, especially when we know how hard it is to love our members of our own family, never mind other races, other people who have strange customs, wondrously (inaudible) but incomprehensible (inaudible).
These are not strangers. These are not foreigners from the east. The three kings come to pay homage to the God that has given them the Prince of Peace.
And at this time we make a special effort to try to break down the barriers that separate race and religion and creed and history and bring us into tune with the great Epiphany at the time of Jesus the child.
Another lovely concept is there are no shepherds, there is no Joseph, there is only the central reality of God becoming man, a child and his mother.
And so today we also remember, in a special way, that the child who died on the cross, his last words were to John, saying, giving his own mother into the hands of John, “Son, behold your mother.”
And for these reasons, for centuries, the feast of the Epiphany was the most important celebration of the church in welcoming the Christmas child into our hearts.
Of course, the story is a terrific story, and everybody tells this story in a different way. And everybody has an idea where these people came from. And the reason it’s such a good story is it allows you to project all kinds of possibilities, because the story basically is very simple and Mathew makes it that way.
It begins, we do not know where. All we do know is that, suddenly, into the land of Israel, into the land of Palestine, a strange group of men came looking for the recently born king of Israel, king of the Jews.
Where did they come from?
Well, we know they weren’t kings. That’s the first thing. They were the magi. Magi were people who belonged to the court on its highest level. They were not only scholars who could read and write and interpret all kinds of official things for the imperial emperor or king whoever they happened to be serving. They were his right hand persons. And because of that, they were respected and they were, indeed, received as kings whenever they went to places like Palestine where they were received by Herod.
But they were basically astrologers. Today, the science of astronomy thanks these early astrologers, for they were the first ones to unlock the secrets of the stars.
And they were well aware that a star had appeared and they knew that it had appeared some place among the Jewish people in perhaps the country in which they were now living.
And so they went out to that country.
Now stars were more than stars. Stars were places that you could, perhaps, in the darkness of a night, see a new twinkling and beautiful star and know something very grand and wonderful had happened in another part of the world, soon to consume you in its radiance and in its meaning.
So we must not try to be too literal about the stars, but we must try to understand that these men were searching. They were searching for something that would take this very diverse and in a world that they themselves knew as being complicated and full of dangers and full of awful things, but also full of the goodness of heaven.
And what they were looking for was a new way of understanding, a new way of understanding themselves, understanding where they came from, not just physically, but spiritually. What is this hunger in the heart? What are these ideas that trouble them in their lives? Why is it that death seems so harsh? And why should it end, because all their thoughts while they were alive were full of life and future and possibility?
And so all of these things kind of bound themselves together with the magi, because the magi were half philosophers, they were poets, they were also men who were full of the wisdom of the time, in practical and in many wondrous ways.
We don’t know how many they were. Everybody says three, naturally, because there are three gifts: gold, gold to show forth kingship, for a king; and frankincense to show forth incense, which is given to gods; and the third, myrrh, is the sign of death for those, especially those kings who died, they were wrapped in sacred oil of myrrh, with its own special fragrance.
And so they came, the three of them, the ten of them, the army of them, we do not know how many. And they came not to the stable, you notice, they came to a house. And in the house there was a child, and in the house there was a little child with a teenage mother taking care of him. And they dropped to their knees and offered the gifts. The gifts would be to a king, but also to a god.
Faith is a wonderful thing. It’s inscrutable when it is really working. People will do things out of faith that will go against everything that they have heard before. But also faith is a great (inaudible). Once given invest in your faith, in the journey, and in the walk, and in the knowing that at the end of the journey something wondrous and wonderful and great will happen.
Sell all that you have to pave the long journey, to go from country to country, and always be at risk, from robbers, from clowns, from people who do not accept you, and yet to pursuit it, to pursuit it with a kind of important feeling that this is the one thing in my life that I must not let go of. This is the one thing that will turn my life around.
And that is what happened. They saw. You see, they also were well read in the Jewish scriptures, because they probably came from Persia, and, of course, Persia was the Babylonian captivity. And they had known very well that this strange Jewish people believed only in one true God. And they believed also that one day this one true God would send a messiah and he would change the world. And they knew this because they were scholars and they had studied all of the written materials from many different backgrounds.
And so when they came to Jerusalem they went to Herod, not to look for a king that was born in Palestine, but for the exact location of that king because it was a rather large country.
And so Herod, of course, called the Sanhedrin. All of the scribes and many of the Pharisees and all of the scholars and Jewish people who made a point of reading the scriptures and studying the scriptures, and they told him that the prophets had said that it would be in the town of David.
The town of David. David, the little boy who took on the giant Goliath and slew him. David, who sent his best friend out to die because he had seduced his wife and he was afraid that he would find out. The David whom God loved. The David whom God promised that someday in and out of his people the Messiah would be born.
And so it was that Herod gave the word to the visitors from the east and told them that they would find Him, perhaps, in Bethlehem, because that is where the prophet said the Messiah would be born. And they went and they found Jesus.
Time is not involved in this story. They must have been there a while because they’d moved out of the stable and into a house, Mary and Joseph and the child. And then, we’re not too sure when exactly, we know that there is a somewhat of a two year period between the slaughter of the innocents, but we do not know exactly when that took place. But we do know that Herod had sent them and said kill every child that was two and under so that the Messiah might be destroyed and things might continue.
The story ends with the three wise men going back to their countries and they are never heard of again. And they never come back. They never come back to Israel, apparently. They don’t follow the life of Jesus, apparently. They are not mentioned. They could have done all these things but that is not the point.
The point is what Matthew wants to make. They do not come back for they do not need to come back. The reason they do not need to come back is because they know that they have found the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, and that someday they will also understand the meaning of the Messiah, which is not Jesus alone, but when Jesus says, “If you are looking for me you will find me in the lonely, the lost, the poor. You will find me in those who know their need for God. You will find me in people on the edge of darkness, on the edge of despair. And that is where you are to find me. And that is where you are to serve me.”
And that is the real meaning of the Epiphany. God has made Himself manifest, taken on flesh, risen from the pain of the cross, into a new life, and as he said to his apostles, “I am with you now, with every human being, I am one with you, and the way you treat them is the way you treat me, for there is no Messiah unless you can find Him in your brothers and your sisters.”
And that is a wonderful, wonderful gift to know that when we serve each other, when we reach out to each other, when we forgive each other, when we care for each other, we are indeed children of the Epiphany and we are promised everlasting life.