Feast Day: The Epiphany of Our Lord
Readings: Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 6:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12
“Nations shall come to your light…Then [they] shall see and be radiant.” (Isaiah 60:3, 5)
Today on this the Feast of the Epiphany we are invited to journey along with the Magi as they are led by the light of a star to the one who is the source of all light and with them we are invited not just to observe from afar but to enter into that light, to come offering ourselves, to come bowing down in adoration and love, and to be made radiant by that light ourselves. An appearance that transforms, that’s an epiphany (Alexandra Pohlod). And when God shows us who Jesus really is we are transformed by his light.
In an essay entitled Meditation in a Tool Shed C.S. Lewis reflects on the difference between seeing the Christian faith from the outside and seeing it from the inside.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.
There is a difference, you see, between looking at a beam of light and looking into or along it. From the outside it may appear as just another relic in a toolshed. But when you step into the beam you can see more clearly the source of this light and, furthermore, see how it illumines and transforms everything it touches.
As St Matthew tells us, “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
There are a few things to note here. First of all is the identity of these men. They are from the east, that is, they are Gentiles. And so it is that no sooner has the divine light taken on flesh that he is drawing all people to himself—not just Israel, but Gentiles—enlightening all those on whom he shines.
Because God is in the business of bringing outsiders in. That’s what St Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is saying in our second reading. Non-Israelites have been brought into the covenant that God made with Israel. They have become fellow heirs, he says, members of the same body, sharing in the same promise.
Epiphany reminds us that God comes not just for the benefit of insiders but so that those who are far off might by grace be brought near. Epiphany reminds us that the light which dawned at Christmas is drawing all people in. You know people that are searching for this light. You know people that are hungry for truth, for goodness, for beauty. They are searching high and low for it. And whether they presently know it or not their searching—the searching of every human creature for the light—leads ultimately to one place. To the source of all light, to an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. To Jesus Christ, to be welcomed by faith and adored. This season of Epiphany, I want to challenge you to pray diligently for those you know who are seeking for the light.
The second thing to note here is the mention of king Herod. Herod, you see, was a tyrant and nothing could restrain his wickedness. Only a few verses later in Matthew Herod will have all of the children in and around Bethlehem two and under slaughtered in an attempt to rid himself of this newborn king. He is like that great dragon in the twelfth chapter of Revelation waiting with jaws wide open to devour the child as soon as it is born.
Isn’t it interesting that God took on flesh and came among us not during a time of peace but during the reign of a tyrant king? It’s no wonder that the Church Fathers saw already in the wood of the manger the wood of the cross. But I want you to take hope in this fact, for it means that there is no corner of the world, no corner of your life, that is too chaotic, or too dark, or too sinful for the Son of God to come into. In fact, he longs to come to such places, he has come that his light might scatter the darkness.
How did the magi know where to find this newborn king? How did they know to look for him in such an inconspicuous place, not in a palace of splendid marble but in a dark and lowly stable? How did they know to look for a boy covered with the most lowly swaddling clothes rather than a boy swaddled with purple and gold? They were led, guided by the light of a star to the light of the world hidden here in such lowly form.
Scholars tell us that these men were astrologers, they studied the heavens. Notice how their study of the natural world led them very near to the Son of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” sings the Psalmist, “and the firmament sheweth his handywork,” (19:1). The Church has long taught that the study of the natural world can lead us to a certain knowledge of God and here the magi’s study of the heavens is leading them to the one who upholds the heavens. This is a good place to plug Peter Hank’s upcoming three-week course examining the fine-tuning of the universe and the relationship between faith and reason.
But this was no ordinary star. It had the capacity to guide, not only to move but to beckon (Chrysostom). Because faith is the fruit not just of reason but of revelation. Revelation illumines our minds and hearts so that we can know and love the one who is beyond the frailty of our rational capacity. Faith, says Aquinas, is supra-rational—it goes above and beyond what human reason is capable of attaining. In order to know and love Christ, he himself must pull back the veil of flesh from our eyes so that we can see. The light of the star must guide us. What are the stars, those little lights that faithfully lead us to the source of all light, Jesus Christ? Surely the Bible is chief among these!
Arriving at that lowly place where the infant was St Matthew tells us that the magi were “overwhelmed with joy.” There is no joy greater, nor deeper, nor wider than the joy of having one’s deepest longings fulfilled. No one who follows the light of Scripture will be disappointed in the end but rather confirmed all the more when their eyes behold Christ Jesus.
Then they entered the house and they saw the child with Mary his mother. This is not incidental for Mary helps us love and adore her son more fully. And right on cue the magi, “fell down, and worshipped him.” They threw open their treasure chests and offered him all they had. Finally, they return home but “by another road.” Because it is not possible that those who had come from Herod to Christ would return to Herod.
An epiphany is an appearance that transforms and when God shows us who Jesus really is we are transformed by his light. That doesn’t mean we have it all figured out or we’re all perfect as peaches but it means that we are not the same, we cannot be, for we have come to know his mercy and therefore we live anew not for ourselves but for him.
I want you to notice how the story we’ve heard from the gospel this morning is essentially the shape of the liturgy. As the magi were led by the light of a star to the light of the world hidden in the flesh of an infant so in the liturgy we are led by the light of Scripture to the light of the world hidden in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Overwhelmed with joy, we like them bow down in adoration offering our gifts, offering ourselves! We are then dismissed and go home by another way, not returning to the sin out of which Christ has called us but transformed by grace to be a window through which his divine light might shine forth into the world.
That is what God wants to do with us when we come here. We haven’t come just to hear an old story. We haven’t come just to sing some old songs. We haven’t come just to admire the light—as if it were a mildly interesting and possibly relevant artifact. No, Epiphany invites us not to admire the light but to enter into it. To know its source in Jesus Christ, to feel its warmth, and to see the whole world, including ourselves, illumined by it.