03 January 2010

The End of Christmas

The Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12

After the media noche and noche buena, the family gatherings and class reunions, the Misas de Aguinaldo, the Christmas parties and outreach activities, the gift-giving and decorating, we now come to the last week of the Christmas season.

May I draw your attention to the belen, the nativity set of our church. There is the Holy Family, the three wise men with their gifts, the shepherds, the manger, the star. Now days after the great childbirth, one would expect better lodgings for Mary and the newborn Jesus. And the shepherds should have left long before the magi arrived. But the belen is more about symbols than historical accuracy. Nevertheless, our Gospel today practically describes the traditional belen you are looking at right now. Finally, the story of the nativity, as told in the liturgy, is complete.

Epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” which means appearance or manifestation. In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus manifested himself to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish world) represented by the “magoi” (wise men) from the East, who came looking for the newborn “king of the Jews” upon the appearance of a certain star, as foretold in their writings .

Jesus indeed is the fullness of revelation. His epiphany reveals to us what salvation is about.

1. Salvation is offered to all.

The history of salvation begins at creation with the couple Adam and Eve. During the great flood God saved the family of Noah. When the time came, He called Abraham to found His Chosen People. With the epiphany of Christ, no longer is salvation known to be offered only to a chosen couple, family or nation. The ultimate object of salvation is finally revealed: everyone.

Eph 3,5-6 (in the Second Reading) says: “It was not made known to people in other generations as 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.”

Though Isaiah (in the First reading) prophesied it centuries earlier, still this was a revolutionary idea at that time. Even now, we are prompted by these words to read the Old Testament, indeed the entire Bible, in its "sensus plenior", in its fuller sense, according to the revelation of Christ. We are the Gentiles. The wise men from the east represent us in the nativity story. The Good News is to be proclaimed to all peoples. We are undeniably included in God’s plan of salvation.

2. Salvation comes in the form of man.

The coming of Jesus as man and His subsequent revelation as Son of Man, Son of God, the Word made flesh, overturned the old concepts of God. The all-powerful yet distant God is no more. He choose to reveal Himself to us in the form of man, subject to the conditions of the flesh, except sin. He is a God who choose to pitch his tent among us.

In Jesus Christ, we are saved. John 1,12 says: “to those who did accept Him He gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.”

This is one of the great distinctions of Christianity with the other world religions. They do not worship as God their human founders. We do. We worship Him as God and relate to Him as brother and friend. By this we are saved.

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking about the conversion of St. Paul, explained that “Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality, but an encounter with the person of Christ, an event that ignites a personal relationship with Him.”

3. Salvation is presented as a gift.

The gifts that the wise men brought are highlighted for their symbolic value: gold because Jesus is king; frankincense because He is God’s high priest; and myrrh, used in the preparation of the dead, because He is the greatest of the prophets, in reference to the common fate of prophets in Israel: they are killed because of their mission.

But the greatest gift at Christmas and Epiphany is salvation in Christ Himself.

Now gifts are either accepted or turned down, put to good use or not. The same is also true with salvation. What do we do with the gifts we receive at Christmas? We may use them, simply keep them, share them with others or give them away to somebody else.

Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, all received the gift of Christ with gladness in their hearts. King Herod chose not to, preferring instead to narrow his view of Him as a threat to his power.

Our great and happy tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is but a reflection of the great self-giving of Christ. For one fleeting but memorable season we experience the warmth of family, the generosity of friends, the kindness of strangers, the joy of our community of faith. What do we do with the gift of Christ at Christmas?

For our reflection, I would like to share this well-loved poem by Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian and civil rights leader, from his book “The Mood of Christmas”.

The Work of Christmas

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

May Christ and Christmas remain and grow in our hearts the whole year round.

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