Following the Light: An Epiphany Reflection
The feast of the Epiphany completes the Octave of Christmas and brings the mission of Christ full circle. The little Child Jesus came first to his own Jewish people, and to the Shepherds who first heard the message of his birth. They represented the poor and outcast among the people of Israel. But He also came for all humanity, represented by the Wise Men from the East.
The first truth we are to learn from the feast of the Epiphany is this: the Journey of the Wise Men was only the first in a great procession of others. As Isaiah prophesied: “Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance.” After Jesus’ Resurrection, the first Outside group to be drawn towards this King was the Gentiles. In every age and nation, people hear the message of the star and find the Child who reveals the tenderness of God.
There are wise men and women throughout history who seek God, and not only our believing Christian community. The unending quest for the divine finds its expression in the world’s various religions and philosophies, which contain, to lesser or greater extents, elements of Truth and Fulfillment.
As Bishop Ronald Stephens put it:
“The Gentile wise men represent the branching out of God’s chosen people to the whole world. This would no longer just be for the Jewish chosen people, but God’s saving grace would be for all men and women, just as we heard the angels proclaiming to the shepherds on Christmas Eve.”
After having a dream or vision that King Herod was up to no good, the wise men did not go back to Herod as they were asked to do but headed off for their own countries by a different route.
So what can we draw from this experience? There has been much turmoil over the refugee immigrations from Syria and elsewhere. Bishop Stephens says we need to get our minds around the fact that there is one God for everyone and He is a God for all peoples. Perhaps he manifests Himself in different ways to different people at different times. Who are we to say we know the mind of God or the ways of God. Surely we know we have been wrong many times before in our rash judgments.
Instead of criticism and fear, we need to do our best to accept all people as brothers and sisters, whatever their religious or cultural background. We must be there to love them, to help them, to care for them, and thus show that we are really Christian by our love.
In a complex world this seems so simplistic, and our fears get in the way of really seeking to get to know and understand others. But if Jesus is really the Savior of all humankind, we need to be ready to do things that help him do His job, since we are His hands and His feet on earth today. This is something we should all think about as we try to open all the doors and let the light of the great Star of Bethlehem shine in for all. This in great part is the Good News the Epiphany brings today.
The second truth brought to the fore on the Feast of the Epiphany: the Wise Men point out for us the path of our journey through life. They sought the true Light. As Pope Francis put it: “By following a light, they sought the light.” They set out in search of the new born King not realizing they would eventually encounter God in the little Child of Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit called them and prompted them to set out.
On the way they encountered difficulties, notably the deception of King Herod and “all of Jerusalem with him.” Perhaps the greatest difficulty was the eventual encounter with the smallness of Jesus. The Holy Spirit helped them to enter into the mystery of it all. They recognized that God’s criteria is quite different from those of men. God does not manifest Himself in the powerful of this world, but speaks to us in the humbleness of a child, in the humbleness of love.
The Wise Men are models for us of conversion to the true faith since they believed more in the goodness of God than in the apparent splendor of power. They presented their gifts to the little Child:
Gold: a precious gift for a King.
Frankincense: a gift for a priest whose prayer rises to God.
Myrrh: a gift for anointing one who is to suffer and die.
Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, and mystic, who died in 1772, suggests these gifts speak to us today.
Gold is a substance of enduring value, highly resistant to oxidation and corruption. It is the universal symbol of Love. We give the Christ Child the gift of spiritual and heavenly love.
Frankincense is aromatic oil used in incense, sacred oils, and perfumes. It produces an aroma and smoke rising, which is a suitable symbol of our prayers and offerings pleasing to God: the gift of devotion to spiritual truth, especially in the teachings of Christ.
Myrrh is an aromatic resin also used in incense and sacred oils, as well as a medicine. It is our symbol of consecration to active service to the Lord in His suffering members whom we willingly anoint. We give Myrrh to Christ in the person of the poor.
The third truth is that the Wise Men entered in to the mystery in which God is hidden. Pope Francis had this to say on the occasion of the Epiphany last year:
“And so we can ask ourselves: what is the mystery in which God is hidden? Where can I find him? All around us we see wars, the exploitation of children, torture, trafficking in persons…In all these realities, in these, the least of our brothers and sisters who are enduring these difficult situations, there is Jesus. The crib points us to a different path from the one cherished by the powerful of this world: it is the path of God’s self-abasement, his glory concealed in the manger of Bethlehem, revealed on the cross upon Calvary, in each of our suffering brothers and sisters.”
The wise men entered into the mystery. They passed from human calculations to the mystery: this was their conversion. And what of our own?
Let us ask the Lord to let us undergo that same journey of conversion experienced by the wise men. Let us ask Him to protect us and to set us free from the temptations which hide the star. To let us always feel the troubling question: “Where is the star?”, whenever – amid the deceptions of this world and personal difficulties and challenges – we lose sight of it. To let us know ever anew God’s mystery, and not to be scandalized by the “sign” which points to “a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke, 2:12).
Let us have the humility to ask the Mother of this Child of Bethlehem, our Mother, to show Him to us. To find the courage to be liberated from our illusions, our presumptions, our “lights”, and to seek the courage of the Wise Men in the humility of faith and to encounter the Light, Lumen, like the Magi.
May the Holy Spirit help us to follow the Star in our lives and to encounter the Holy Child of Bethlehem, the Son of God. Amen.
Fr. Frank Sacks, Chaplain of the Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg MD