The Feast of the Epiphany is the oldest in the Liturgical Calendar after Easter and Pentecost and Epiphany was celebrated long before even Christmas itself came to be regarded as a feast.
The word Epiphany literally means manifestation and refers to the appearance or making known of Christ. Of course, in the beginning the feast was about the several manifestations of Christ: his first coming into the world, his being made known to the Shepherds, his manifestation to the Wise Men from the East, and it included even the Father announcing who he was at his Baptism by John, as well as the demonstration of his power in his First Miracle at the Marriage Feast of Cana.
But as the Feast of Christmas and the other feasts gradually came to be separated over time, the Epiphany centred on the manifestation of Christ to the Magi —in other words to the Gentiles.
The first sections of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke about the early life of Christ are known as the Infancy Narratives and they have been the subjects of a lot of scholarship over the last twenty years.
One of the results of all this research is that we now realise that these stories can be seen as “Gospels in Miniature” because they contain the most important elements of what comes after. They are like the overture to a great musical piece in which the various motifs are brought to our attention.
Here in this story of the coming of the Wise Men we see clearly a very important element of Christ’s Mission coming in right from the start, namely, his mission to the Gentiles.
The People of Israel were rightly known as the Chosen People because they were the group to whom God chose to gradually reveal himself in various ways over the centuries. The history of their relationship with God is one of a gradual education, a slow revelation of God’s true nature over the centuries and a growing understanding by the people of God’s expectations for them.
They were also the race among whom Christ was born, even if only to be ultimately rejected. This rejection is, of course, turned to the greatest possible advantage for the whole of mankind through the great act of salvation.
The rejection of Christ by Israel becomes the opportunity for Christ to be revealed to all the nations and so ultimately to us today.
All this is prefigured by the visit of the Wise Men who themselves are in a sense foretold in the Old Testament scriptures. Look at today’s first reading for example: The nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness.
It was always in the understanding of the People of Israel that God had chosen them to receive his special revelation but that in due time all nations would bow down before the one true God. But this was not understood as happening right away; it was rather something that would occur when the Messiah ultimately came into his Kingdom.
They were right, of course, but their timing was wrong and they didn’t anticipate that that they as a people would reject Christ. We say this and yet we must acknowledge that very many individual Jews did come to believe in Christ, and not only among the poor since some notable religious leaders also accepted him. But institutionally speaking he was simply rejected.
This Feast of the Epiphany achieved great importance early on in the history of the Church surely because the many converts from paganism saw in the story of the wise men their own story.
These wise men were guided by a star. They were led by God to the stable in Bethlehem where they offered the Christ Child their gifts and paid him homage.
The early converts to Christianity, like any convert today, realised that they too were guided by God and led on a journey of faith and brought to belief in Christ. When they finally encounter him they place all they have at his disposal and worship him as the Son of God and the one true Saviour of the World.
They may not be rich like those Magi, but they know that they have found the greatest treasure anyone could possess —belief in Jesus Christ.
St Paul is reflecting on the same thing in his Letter to the Ephesians when he alludes to the well-known story of his own conversion and says that this special revelation is what led him to preach the Good News to them.
But don’t think it is just converts who have been chosen by God. Don’t think it is just those who in adult life feel drawn to the Church who are singled out by him.
Each one of us has been led by a star. Each one of us has been brought by God to the assent of faith. It may have been because we searched as adults and gradually found faith but it could also be because we were brought up as Christians by our parents; that in our earliest childhood we came to a knowledge and love of God.
Make no mistake about it we were all converts once. The gradual realisation by a child of what faith in Christ actually means is no less of a conversion than that of an adult in the prime of life. It is just as genuine, just as deep, just as life changing.
Sometimes it is in our childhood that we see things most clearly. As we grow older we do not always grow wiser; quite often the preoccupations of raising children, maintaining our relationships and paying a mortgage get in the way and cloud our vision.
What started off as certainly and firmness of faith can with the vicissitudes of life easily fade away into disinterest and laxity. What we need then is re-conversion, what we need to do is to look for that star once more.
Let us think today about those Wise Men and about how wise they were. They let God lead them. And their journey was not merely a journey by land but it was also a journey of faith. And God revealed himself to them in the person of the Child Jesus.
In one way or another the same thing has happened to each one of us. God leads us on a journey of faith and he reveals himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
But this doesn’t just happen once. No, it happens again and again in our lives. There are a whole series of Epiphanies awaiting us if we only co-operate with God and let him lead us.
Hidden under one form or another there is always a star glittering out there in the darkness. If we constantly look for that star and follow where God leads us again and again we will encounter Christ in all sorts of different disguises until one day we meet him face to face and the door is ultimately opened for us to live with him forever.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket