08 January 2012

The Three Gifts of Epiphany

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (B) – 8 January 2012

Epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” which means appearance or manifestation. In the Gospel reading today, the magi (wise men) from the East came looking for the newborn “king of the Jews” upon the guidance of a star, and found Jesus. His manifestation to the world – to the Jews and, especially, to the Gentiles – is what we celebrate today.

The story and the feast itself are replete with symbolism. I would like to use one of them as the theme of this reflection: the symbol of the “gift”. Though I'm sure others may still be added, for our purposes let me share three gifts from God that He reveals to us through this feast.

1. The Gift of Christ Himself

Jesus Christ Himself is the most important gift of all -- the reason for the Season. The angel Gabriel announced His coming. The heavenly hosts proclaimed His birth. Mary loved Him with love beyond telling. Joseph protected Him. The shepherds were drawn to Him. The magi made an effort to travel long distances to see Him. A star guided them to Him.

All our liturgies and prayers, our doctrines and preaching, our cathedrals and worship places, our sacred arts and music, indeed all of Scriptures and Tradition – count as nothing without Him.

He is the center of the universe, and He wants to be the center of our life. And yet like anyone who presents oneself to another, Jesus also exposed Himself to the risk of being rejected. And indeed He was. The psalmist sings: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” (118,22). The shepherds and the magi may be drawn to Him, but when the magi spoke about their business at Herod’s court, Herod and all Jerusalem trembled. And then Herod began to set in motion the plan to get rid of a potential rival, the prophesied newborn “king of the Jews”. John the Evangelist describes Jesus' relationship with His fellow Jews this way: "He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him" (Jn 1,11).

Even now, Christ’s epiphany has brought Him countless rejections. Every time we sin, we turn away from Him. It is easy to come and adore the infant Jesus, all cute and huggable. But let us also not forget His timeless and challenging message of dying to oneself, of being the least of everyone, of carrying the cross, of forgiving enemies and praying for persecutors.

It is also easy to be led into thinking it is the star that we want. God has given us stars – talents, treasure, family, good friends, good jobs, opportunities. The temptation is falling into thinking that they are the most important things in our life. But they are not. They are there to lead us to Christ. We are not fortune-centered, or opportunity-centered, or career-centered, or even family-centered, or worse self-centered. A true Christian is Christ-centered. He is the reason and the compass by which we navigate our lives, by which we make decisions for our family, for our careers, concerning opportunities that come our way.

2. The Gift of Salvation

Christ came to save all of humanity from sin and death. Accepting the gift of salvation begins with the acceptance that we need saving. Pride and denial in the midst of privilege is the gist of the story of the fall of Adam, Eve and Cain. The humility and faith of Mary and Joseph, even in the midst of uncertainty, overturned the effect of humanity's history of sinfulness and made possible the story of Christmas. That is why we prepare for Christmas, not by redecorating our homes and spending, but primarily by the call to repentance and conversion of Advent.

There is one more thing about this salvation: it is offered to all. At the time of Jesus, this was a revolutionary idea. To some extent, there are still people today who believe that salvation is only for a few, that it is accessible only to the holy, the good, the prayerful. Even Santa Claus’ gifts are reserved only for the nice kids, not the naughty ones.

Who are these people who think this way? They are not far from you and me. Many times they are us, and we apply the same faulty judgment to ourselves. How many times have we sinned and been down, and thought of ourselves as no longer worthy of God’s love, or that we are beyond redemption?

We celebrate the feast of Epiphany with the story of the wise men from the East. They were not members of the Chosen People, yet to them was revealed the correct time and place of the Savior’s birth. Most likely they were not followers of the true faith. Yet they caught a glimpse of the truth and they searched for it.

The magi are us, imperfect sinful people of God. Yet we are wise insofar as we accept God’s guidance as revealed to us in Christ. Just like them who journey to see Christ, so is salvation a journey towards getting closer to Christ. We stop becoming true Christians, when we stop searching for God and seeking His will.

3. The Gift of Mission

The gifts of the magi have been interpreted as symbolic of the three-fold mission of Christ: gold for the king, frankincense for the priest, and myrrh for the prophet. What does this mean for us? Jesus has already accomplished His mission on earth, but He has shared it to his disciples as well.

When we were baptized in Christ, we accepted the same three-fold mission from Him. To be a king is to be of humble service to others in Christ. To be a priest is to pray and lead others to Christ. To be a prophet is to be a witness in word and deed for Christ.

I would like to end this reflection with a classic end-of-Christmas poem, “The Work of Christmas”, by a wise man of his time, Dr. Howard Thurman, an American theologian and civil rights leader. It speaks as well about the gift of Mission.

“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.”

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