Homily for the Epiphany, 8 o’clock Mass, Sunday 3 January 2016
The Greek word “Epiphany” means manifestation, shining out. So today we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, especially to the Gentiles. Actually a 3-fold event is celebrated today: the coming of the Magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, and the Miracle of the water and wine at Cana in Galilee.
But traditionally, and because of today’s Gospel, we inevitably think mainly of the Magi and their star. These mysterious men from the East represent the gentile and pagan world, the world far from Israel in either politics or religion; yet they come to Christ, and they worship him.
The coming of the gentiles to Christ is the great Mystery that St. Paul wonders at so much in today’s 2nd reading from Ephesians. It seems the opposite of everything the Old Testament says; yet actually it’s the perfect fulfilment of the whole Old Testament. The Jews were established precisely as separate from the gentiles, in order to be God’s own people; in order to prepare for the coming of Christ. But when he came, salvation was opened up to all who would believe in him, whether Jew or Gentile. For Paul this is astounding, utterly unexpected, contrary to everything he had studied and been taught; yet also now a cause for him, and for everyone, of exultant rejoicing. So he trumpets it forth unwearyingly, hoping we will catch something of the thrill and excitement of his own discovery; of the greatness of what God has done for us in Christ.
As a devout Jew St. Paul then looks back at the Scriptures of the Old Testament and reads them with new eyes; seeing signs of Christ’s coming everywhere, and interpreting everything in the light of Christ. And with his eyes thus opened, Paul sees that in fact God’s plan has always been consistent, and very wonderful, and good news for all prepared to hear it.
Back to the Magi. According to the story in St. Matthew’s Gospel, they are not just gentiles, but also Pagans. And very remarkably, that doesn’t matter. In fact they find Christ while the people who should have found him, the professional religious people in Israel at the time, notably failed to do so. First of all, of course, they see the star of Christ in the sky; they follow that, and so are led to Bethlehem. Their star, their journey have remained richly symbolic for all Christian people ever since.
Assuming they were astrologers, whose philosophy and religion was bound up with star gazing, the Magi were like the merchant of the parable searching for fine pearls, who sees one of great value and sells all he has to purchase it. Amid all the stars in the sky, all the philosophies and religions on offer, they chose this one, and leaving all they had behind, they followed it, at first almost blindly, even naively, not actually knowing where it would lead them.
For us, this is a little parable of our own life, our journey through this world. The star can be thought of as our faith in Christ; this little guiding light we refuse to let go of. Sometimes it seems a very small light amidst a lot of darkness. We may be mocked or even persecuted for following it. But it’s the most important thing in our whole life; worth to us more than everything else put together; without it we would be completely in the dark; it gives us joy, even if we don’t always understand it, or where it is leading us. The star actually tells us very little, or even nothing, about what we will encounter on our way. But it guides us very truly and certainly towards our home in heaven. It leads us to the one who is life for us and salvation.
How about the un-evangelised people of our time? We pray that they will somehow spot this star for themselves: some glimmering and guiding light amid the darkness. How will such people open their hearts to Christ? There needs to be somehow some God-given light, some spark that will touch them - what we call grace indeed - without which the message of the Gospel, if they ever actually encounter it, will leave them cold and indifferent. This light, this star for them could be some insight about some aspect of truth, or an example of holiness, or moral uprightness, or it could be through some prompting in art or literature or nature... It could be a good example, or even an encounter with suffering and death. What matters then is what they do with it.
Perhaps we can think of the Magi as relevant also for modern inter-faith dialogue. Followers of other religions are the fellow seekers after truth whom the Church wants to respect and speak with as equals. Even though in such a dialogue there is no explicit attempt at conversion or evangelisation, still we hope, of course, that the path of our dialogue partners will converge with ours eventually to the feet of Christ.
The Magi offered Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
These have been taken as figures of who Christ is, and also of what we all offer him.
He is God and man; God worthy of worship, man doomed to die; represented by the frankincense and myrrh. He is also King of heaven and earth, represented by gold.
We offer him our devotion, adoration, prayer, love, represented by frankincense; all we possess, received as a gift from him and offered back to him in thanksgiving - gold; then finally all our pains and sorrows, our struggles, our sacrifices, our efforts to live virtuously and to overcome temptation - myrrh.
In the monastery the Sacristan, Infirmarian and Cellarer, bringing their frankincense, myrrh and gold, receive a special blessing for their service today at the Offertory of the Conventual Mass. With them today, especially at this Mass, we bring to the Lord every aspect of our life. We present it before him in homage; and we ask him to bless it. And we receive back from him the greatest of all gifts, the gift of himself, Christ our Lord.