The word Epiphany is Greek and it literally means ‘manifestation’. In the liturgy a distinction had gradually come to be drawn between the actual birth of Christ and the occasion on which his coming was made known to the world. The date chosen for the Epiphany was the 6th January which appropriately coincided with the Jewish Feast of Lights.
The story of the Epiphany which is only recounted in the Gospel of Matthew is most curious. Who are these Magi? And what is this star that guides them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem?
There are all sorts of interesting allusions here and many connections to be made. By Magi we understand that they were probably Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia. But while Christians were strongly warned elsewhere in the New Testament against dabbling in astrology these Magi are presented by Matthew as truly commendable.
Some suggest that the homage that they pay to Jesus is a kind of giving way by astrology and other magical theories to the truth of Christianity. Others say that this incident is to show that even the pagan world had some understanding of the importance of Christ’s role and had inklings of his birth.
Then there is the curiosity of the star. One theory suggests that it was a supernova; others are of the opinion that it was a comet or a conjunction of planets. Or is Matthew simply using a literary device to explain how these astrologers were guided to the stable at Bethlehem?
I think that we have to look at all these things in the light of the title given to the feast. It is an Epiphany, a manifestation. God makes himself known to the world and to specific individuals.
Ironically the people who should have been most sensitive to the things of God are totally unaware of what is happening in their midst while these strangers from afar show a remarkable awareness of the great intervention of God that had occurred in Bethlehem.
God makes himself known; he leads and guides people on their journey through life. We believe that God continually draws all people to himself and often he does so in the most unobtrusive ways.
He chooses to act in all sorts of hidden and subtle ways out of respect for our free will. God invites but he never imposes himself upon us. Many ignore him and others reject his advances but this does not stop him from showing us the way.
In analysing the story of the Epiphany we have to remember that it celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. And we need to remember that the Evangelist Matthew was writing for a very specific audience. Mostly these were converts from Judaism but we should not forget that his congregation also included a good number of Gentiles.
Indeed within a few decades the vast majority of Christians were converted Gentiles and naturally they looked in the Gospels to see how Jesus related to Gentiles. They found some fine examples in the Gospels such as the Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to cure his servant as well as the group of Greeks who came to see Jesus just before his arrest.
They were especially attracted to these Magi from today’s Gospel text because they could see their own story reflected in the story of the Epiphany. Each one of them, just like each one of us, saw themselves as drawn by God, often in mysterious ways, to come to recognise Christ, to accept his teaching and to do him homage. It is therefore easy to see why the Epiphany became such an important feast quite early on in the life of the Church.
God has brought each one of us to faith. We look back on our lives and see his hand at work in all sorts of curious incidents and apparent coincidences over the years and we recognise his influence on our journey of faith.
At the dinner table a few nights ago some people were saying that the only reason that they were Catholic was because they just happened to be born into a Catholic family. They implied that this was just a chance occurrence and therefore being a Catholic was not something they had any choice over.
They then went on to imply that because they could just as easily have been born into an Anglican or a Moslem family then all religions and denominations were the same and so it didn’t matter what you were. I think that you might have heard the same sort of thing yourselves many times. It is quite a seductive argument and it’s easy to be drawn in by it.
But our birth was no accident. And our faith is not the same as all others. God doesn’t randomly allocate us to this or that family. We need to see our birth not as an accident but as just the first of a whole series of signs of God’s love and care for us. It is also important to understand that in Catholicism we hold the fullness of the teaching of Christ and that this deposit of faith has been kept free from error by the successors of the Apostles down through the ages.
It is a privilege to be born a Catholic, to grow up in a Catholic family, to have access to the full message of Christ and the life of the sacraments. It is a privilege but it is also a responsibility. It is our duty to pass the baton to the next generation, to hand on the faith to our children. So the acquiring of our faith is no mere accident of birth but part of the deliberate unfolding of God’s plan.
Now our children may not all want to receive what we give them, but to water the faith down or to deprive them of it would be a serious failing indeed. God works in the world, he draws everyone to himself; but the principal means he uses are not stars in the sky but you and me.
The Magi were drawn to Christ by a star; but the stars of today, the guiding lights of this present age are you and me. It is our mission and task in the world to make Christ manifest to those around us, especially to our own families.
It is our task to enable the people around us to come to their own unique Epiphany. It might happen in a moment of insight or it might take them a whole lifetime to achieve it, but it is our prayer that at a certain point they will come to make the decision to bend their knee in homage to Christ, to the Messiah, to the one, true Saviour of the World.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket