Happy Feast. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and the end of the Christmas Season.
At the story level this is certainly a strong finish. A new star appears, maybe a supernova. Magi (some translations use astrologers) appear from the mysterious East, bearing treasure chests filled with extravagant gifts. They are searching for a child destined to be a king.
And, of course, the story introduces a worthy villain-Herod, a frightened king who tries to trick the Magi into revealing the place of Jesus birth and whose evil plan is frustrated when God speaks to the Magi in a dream.
I suppose the strength of the story alone gives us one way to think about Epiphany: a glitzy capstone to a gaudy season. It would be a worthy final episode for an HBO series. I doubt though that this approach is very satisfying to those of us gathered in this place this morning. For us, the key question what is the religious meaning of Epiphany?
The name itself tells us something. Epiphany: Greek for manifestation, or showing. Tradition provides additional insight. As time does its work, Magi become kings to better reflect Isaiah, chapter 60:3: “nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance.”
By the middle of the 3rd century, tradition even gave the kings names: Melchior of Nubia (a Babylonian scholar), Caspar of Tarshish (a Persian scholar), and Baltazar of Chaldea (an Arab scholar). By the 9th century, tradition claimed that the three kings represented the whole human family: Baltazar was Asian, Caspar a white European, and Melchior was African.
A deeper understanding of Epiphany is provided in the letter to the Ephesians:
“Although I am the least of all the saints, this grace was given me, to bring to the Gentiles the good news of the boundless riches of Christ…to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; So that …through the church , The wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.”
A mystery, hidden for ages in the very nature of God…In what sense is it hidden? I suspect, that hidden here does not refer to some kind of secret, buried treasure, found only by deciphering coded maps and dodging dangerous traps-hidden in the Indiana Jones-Raiders of the Lost Ark, kind of way. More likely, the word hidden denotes the kind of hidden that occurs when my car keys are lost. Hidden, meaning available to me any time I can put aside my distractions and preoccupations and look on the table right under my nose.
And what is it that has been hidden for ages?
- God’s riches are unbounded-riches without boundaries or borders
- That the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.
HBO material or not, this is a feast for which our need is truly desperate.
As we look at ourselves and all people of faith, here at the beginning of the 12th year of the twenty-first century are there any words that we need to hear more than “the wisdom of God in its rich variety?”
What sin better displays our blindness about who God is than the extraordinary efforts of so many people of so many faiths to extinguish the rich variety of the wisdom of God.
In a world divided so wickedly by its varying views about God that the slaughter of the innocents occurs on a daily basis, in a church in which a hymn becomes controversial because includes the word “all are welcome,” is there any feast that we need to ponder more earnestly than the one that celebrates the mystery hidden for age: that God’s love and grace know no boundaries? And, that I am never more blind to the real nature of things as when I am trying to impose my own petty bigotries and narrow-minded prejudices on the God who created all things.
As so often is the case for me, the meaning of the feast is best summarized by the longtime Capuchin, Alexis Luzi:
With Epiphany Sunday the curtain comes down on the Christmas season, and next Sunday, January 15, 2012, we return to the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. All the great religious stories (whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian) need a last act, and all need the same last act! All need a Star of Epiphany to purify them not of their diversity, uniqueness and quaintness but of their hostility, hatred and exclusive spirit. All need a feast of Epiphany to summon their adherents to move over and make room for others. And ample room there is, indeed. When Jesus came into the world the inn-keepers said to Joseph and Mary: “There is no room for you in the inn.” (Lk 2:7) As He was leaving the world, Jesus said to His disciples, “In my Father’s house there is much room for everyone.” (Jn 14:2)