A Light for Every Nation
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine January 7, 2018
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany. Often referred to as “Little Christmas,” Epiphany is in fact just as important as Christmas, as our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Christian churches know only too well. Christmas focuses primarily on the birth of Jesus, the visit of the shepherds, the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Christ as Lord of all creation, as “Light for every nation.”
Inspired by a Greek word meaning “manifestation”, the word “epiphany” conjures up a series of beautiful and powerful images: of a star shining; of Magi seeking, of Christ, Light from Light, hidden in a dark stable, King of the nations. Gifts offered and received: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh to anoint one who will die. Mary pondering, Joseph attending, Herod fuming, plotting; and the Magi returning home … In the words of the James Taylor folk classic, “by another way.”
Saint Gregory the Great, a sixth-century Pope and doctor of the church, preached numerous sermons on the Epiphany. In one, he reminds the Christians of his time that to follow Christ is to allow that encounter to change the very direction of their lives: “Now when the wise men had worshipped the Lord and finished all their devotions, according to the warning of a dream, they return not by the same route by which they had come, but by another way. For now that they believed in Christ, they were no longer to walk in the paths of their old way of life, but to avoid the errors they had left behind.”
What new way are we seeking as we enter upon a New Year? For many, this is a time for resolutions, a commitment to live a healthier, more balanced life. I am sure that all of us, if we look hard enough, can find and name those areas of our lives where we stand in need of growth: physically, emotionally, spiritually. So often, we make resolutions with great gusto, and the best of intentions. Yet old habits die hard. It’s hard to continue our journey by a different way, when we have become so accustomed to old ways, even those that aren’t working so well for us anymore. To put our resolutions into practice, we need not only will-power, but divine grace: to avoid the paths that lead us away from the light of Christ, right back into the old habits that tripped us up in the first place.
In this light, we can look at the contrast Matthew draws in the Gospel between the Magi and the figure of Herod. We meet the Magi diligently following the star, persevering in their journey, and transformed by an overwhelming experience of joy in their encounter with the newborn King, to whom they offer not only precious material gifts, but the gift of their worship, of their very selves. They go back by “another road” not just in the geographical, but the spiritual sense. Having encountered Christ, their lives will no longer be the same.
Now let us consider Herod. Herod is interested in the quest of the Magi, but for all of the wrong reasons. A ruthless, powerful, and paranoid ruler, Herod’s obsession with power lead him not to worship and adore, but to actively seek the death of the newborn King: and he will not hesitate to shed innocent blood in the defense of his power. Herod is not open to change; he seeks the advice of the priests and prophets only to gather information that will serve his murderous plans. Let us not fool ourselves: there are still many Herods in the world today, who seek to destroy anyone who is obstacle to their obsession with greed, power, and control.
Yet the Mystery we celebrate is that in the end, Light will always triumph over darkness, love over hatred. It is Jesus, the innocent and vulnerable child in the manger, who is remembered, loved and served the world over. The world remembers Herod only as a blood-soaked tyrant who failed in his attempt to destroy the child of Bethlehem: Christ, the true King, the One at whose name every knee must bow, who calls you and me to pledge our own lives in loving service. Jesus reveals a power which is manifest in humility, in simplicity, in openness to the will and love of God. All he asks is that we seek him with a steadfast and faithful heart.
Epiphany also reminds us of our identity as God-seekers. Wouldn’t it be nice, I have often thought, if God gave us total and instant clarity about the path in life he wants us to follow? We would all be happy with a shining sun, a spotlight, a clear indicator of what God wants of us, where he is leading us, and how we are supposed to get there.
I find it helpful to think of the Magi following the star. No matter how bright we imagine the Star of Bethlehem to be, whether it was a supernova or a conjunction of planets, stars really don’t give that much light. In the absence of compasses and sextants – let alone satellite navigation and GPS – the Magi looked to the subtle shifts in the stars and constellations in the skies above, to guide their journey. It wasn’t revealed to them all at once. They had to search diligently by night and travel by day, with patience and perseverance, for many long days, weeks, months even – until they found their heart’s desire, the object of their search.
It is the same for us. We would like to know all the answers right away, but typically, light is given to us not all at once, but a little bit at a time. Like the Magi, we too are on a journey. Sometimes, we are called to leave behind the security of a familiar path in order to venture out into the unknown. This can be scary, especially when we encounter obstacles, or when the light just doesn’t seem to shine bright enough, or disappears even. It is precisely at these times that we are called to persevere, to be open to surprise, to trust that we may meet God in unexpected and unfamiliar places. The Magi found Jesus not in a royal palace, as they had expected, but in a vulnerable child, born to refugee parents, in a messy stable.
What about us? What might this Feast of the Epiphany be saying to our secular, post-Christian world, to this parish community, here and now? I think we can begin by emphasizing the universal character of this feast. The traditional Christmas story, as told by Luke, emphasizes the coming of the promised Messiah to Israel, God’s chosen and covenanted people. Today, suddenly and mysteriously, we meet three Gentiles – strangers, others – who have intuited that this birth is good news for them too. This Epiphany, this revelation, is that the birth of Christ is not just one small step for one local religion, but a great leap forward for all humankind.
Traditionally, the three Magi are depicted as representing the different races, cultures and languages of the world. They were inspired to follow a star, but didn’t stop at the star: they let that star lead them to something beyond itself. Is this not a pattern for all wise contemplation of nature and beauty: whether in art or science? A bridge we can build with those who seek God and transcendence in these places?
In a wonderfully evocative sonnet, Anglican poet and mystic Malcolm Guite shows us how the arrival on the scene of the Magi includes us – who are for the most part Gentiles, not direct descendants of the people of Israel – into what has been, up to this point, a primarily Jewish story. May we be inspired by this sonnet – and by the great mystery of the Solemnity of the Epiphany which we celebrate this day – to follow that Star wherever it may lead us:
It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get their special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name, but still they sought him,
They came from elsewhere, but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
The Magi offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As we bring our gifts to the altar today – bread and wine, symbols of divine bounty and our own work and love, and the gifts of our own life, our restless seeking – may we also be transformed by our encounter with Christ. Like that bread and wine, may we too be transformed into Jesus, and follow his Star, wherever it may lead us. Amen.