This week we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. We are quite familiar with the image of magi and their camels lumbering into Bethlehem and finally to the stable where the Christ-child lies in the manger accompanied by His parents and maybe some shepherds. Our crèche scenes always limit the Magi to three, probably because we are equally familiar with the three gifts given by them, hence we think of them as only three. In the retinue that came to the place of Jesus’ birth, the most important gift bearing ambassadors may have been only three, but there had to have been other people traveling along with them. However, the number of people in their company is not what is important. What is important is that the Magi came seeking something, or rather someone, and in doing so received an epiphany. That is, they received a revelation, a new understanding about themselves and the nature of their journey.
When the Magi embarked upon their journey they were following what they perceived to be an omen, an overly large, too-bright-to-be-normal star often referred to as the Star of Bethlehem. To them it was a sign that something special was about to happen, and in fact, they believed it would lead them to an important king who would be newly born. They were not Jewish and so their faith was such that they believed that the stars could portend omens of this sort. They were seeking this important person by following where the omen-star led them. We know that they bore gifts for this great king-to-be-found, and we know that when they got to Bethlehem they were able to find the stable where Jesus was indeed a newborn. But what they found was not exactly what they had expected when they began the journey: the king they found was the Son of God. It seems that they believed and that they did Him homage, offering up their precious gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The epiphany that they received, at least the obvious one, was a new understanding of God and how He works. They came to find that the King in the manger was greater than any king they could have hoped to find. From this revelation and whatever else they needed to receive, their eyes and their hearts were opened to a new reality which changed them forever.
An epiphany is different from ordinary knowledge or the insights we gain through learning. It refocuses our orientation from ourselves to something outside of ourselves and it is something that deepens our understanding of reality. Just as the Magi went from seeking an earthly king when they set out, to recognizing a King who came from heaven to join us on earth in order to accomplish something too great for them to imagine, we too are invited into the journey of Epiphany so that we may learn to recognize Him in different ways than we did previously. I do not think their epiphany was instantaneous, taking place the moment they laid eyes upon the baby Jesus. Somehow it seems that it was in the process of the journey that their minds and hearts began to open to the possibility that something more wonderful was at hand.
An epiphany can come in any way God wants to send it, but I daresay that a true epiphany is something that we have to be prepared to receive. Just as we had four weeks in Advent to prepare for the ‘arrival’ of Jesus, we have had the subsequent days of the Christmas season to prepare for whatever it is that God wants to reveal to us in our encounter with Him. Lest we forget, the process of waiting and yearning does not stop with the arrival of Christmas. In fact, the lesson here is that we never stop waiting and yearning until we arrive at our true home with God forever. If we stop this process, we will cease to receive the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which God reveals Himself and His mercy to us. And like the Magi we must follow the star to the stable, but we must leave by a different route as we take what we have learned out into the world, continuing to seek ways to live this newness.
One important epiphany for the Magi was their discovery of the gift of discernment. If we look to the gospel for the Feast of Epiphany, (Matthew 2:1-12) we see that upon arrival in Judea the Magi were called into a private meeting with King Herod. The secrecy and smarminess of his request to know where the baby was may have alerted them to the fact that something was amiss. Their eventual discernment was that Herod was not to be trusted no matter how convincing he seemed in his feigned desire to pay homage to the Child. The Magi had learned that not everything that was alluring was something good to follow. The Star of Bethlehem was a light to be followed because it brought them to God. Perhaps since they already did not trust the intentions of a king who had met with them surreptitiously, they felt that the dream they received was more consistent with what they had learned about God on their journey. Revelation often comes little by little, and at some point the Magi understood that Jesus would be a threat to the established order because He is Truth, the light shining in the darkness of the world’s deceit and falsehood. After coming face to face with Jesus they seem to have realized that God acts in light and not in darkness. They came to know that Jesus was Light and Life; from Herod would come darkness and death.
Perhaps this Epiphany we are called to be like the Magi focusing on three things: whatever it is we seek in Jesus, what it is we bring to Him, and what we take away with us. Whatever it is we seek in Jesus, it is right in the manger where He lays. He is Mercy, Compassion, Light, Truth, Wisdom, Comfort, Forgiveness, Life, and Love, to name only some of His attributes. All that we seek is found in Jesus, so we can follow the Star which leads us to Him. Once we come to the manger, we can let Him reveal to us what He knows we really need. Next, what do we bring Him? Hopefully it is a heart which is emptied and ready to be filled anew. The only thing we can really give Him is ourselves, imperfect though we are. Finally, what do we take away with us? When the Magi left their precious gifts at the feet of the tiny Baby, spending time adoring Him, certainly they left with more than they had when they arrived. The greater gifts were not the material things they brought, (symbolic though they were), but rather what they came away with. In any encounter with the living God we always come away with gifts of grace. So then, whatever it is we seek in Jesus, know that in our encounter with Him during this Christmas season, whatever it is we seek in finding Him, whatever it is we bring to Him, we come away with the greater gift. No matter what it is He gives us, to each it will be what we uniquely need, not some generic one-gift-fits-all kind of thing. And no matter what epiphany He gives us, we will walk away from the manger on a different path, richer for the meeting, because we will be changed. There is no going back the way we came. That path is no longer possible.
This Epiphany let us seek the Lord in a new way and let us open our hearts to the message and gift He has for us. I cannot tell you what that is. Only Jesus can do that. But what I can say is that in the encounter He will offer ‘oceans of mercy,’ as Pope Francis has said; Jesus will offer new life, new freedom, new perseverance in our sufferings or problems, hope, forgiveness of our sins, strength for the living, and an abundance of gifts for us to share so others may come to know Him as we do. The gifts we take away with us become part of us and so they will touch others when we reach out in love and mercy. Let us be like the Magi: wise enough to follow, patient enough to make the journey, faithful enough to believe what we see when we get to the manger, humble enough to offer all that we are, grateful enough to accept what He offers, hopeful enough to accept the new path by which we depart, and trusting enough to know we take Him with us, even if He is unseen or unfelt. Epiphanies are not just a one-time event: they continue to evolve. Let us take the 'wealth of nations' with us so that we may be radiant at what we see so that our hearts may throb and overflow.
May we persevere in our journeying with Christ! May our hearts be open to the epiphany which the Lord has as a gift for us! May we have the courage to ask for what we seek! May we have the humility to offer our gift of self to the Lord! May we have the trust to take a new path, knowing that He comes with us! May we be like the Magi with the wisdom to discern what is from the Lord and what leads us on the road to danger! May we be willing to invite those who do not yet know Jesus to accompany us on the journey to the manger! And may we accept the gift God has for us, so we may truly be wise men and women open to sharing His oceans of mercy with those whom we meet! Let us meet on the journey into the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
-The reference in both the title of this entry and the last sentence of the second paragraph from the end is to Isaiah 60:5.
The first painting is the work of Giotto. It is called Adoration of the Magi.
Next is an icon called The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The original hangs in Bethlehem, Israel as the title indicates. You can purchase a copy at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html or if you like the framed border at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-with-frame-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is the Magi arriving near Bethlehem. I have no idea who painted this because it came to me on a Christmas card a number of years ago.
Last is actually a tapestry, not a painting. It is The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones, designed in 1888 and woven in 1894. It can be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adoration_of_the_Magi_Tapestry.png. This work is in the public domain in the U.S.
Heart Speaks to Heart