Solemnity of the Epiphany
Scripture Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
In a children’s opera about the Magi, titled Amahl and the Night Visitors, a poor widow and her crippled son hear a knock on the door. She calls out, Amahl! He replies, Yes, Mother. Go and see who’s knocking at the door.
Taking his crutch he hobbles to the door. Astonished, he hobbles back, saying:
Mother…Mother…Mother, come with me … I want to be sure that you see what I see.
Who is it then? Mother… outside the door…there is…there is a King with a crown.
What shall I do with this boy? If you don’t learn to tell the truth, I’ll have to spank you! Go back and see who it is.
Amahl looks again and returns. Mother…Mother…Mother, come with me … I want to be sure that you see what I see. What’s the matter with you now?
Mother… I didn’t tell the truth before. That’s a good boy.
There’s not a King outside. I should say not! There are two kings!
Don’t you dare make up tales. Hurry back and see who it is.
Amahl looks a third time and proclaims, Mother, Mother, Mother, come with me. If I tell you the truth you won’t believe me. Try it for a change.
Sure enough, there are not two Kings outside. That’s surprising! There are three Kings and one is black.
Oh! What shall I do with this boy! If you were stronger I’d whip you. I’m going to the door myself.
When she opens the door Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar greet her in unison saying, Good evening! Good evening!
Amahl says to his mother, What did I tell you! She warns him to be quiet.
Then Balthasar speaks for the three kings, May we rest a while in your house and warm ourselves by your fireplace?
She welcomes them and they reply in unison, Thank you, thank you. Oh, thank you!
Caspar, who is a bit deaf, brings a parrot with him. Amahl asks, Does it bite? Caspar says, Eh?
Amahl repeats, DOES IT BITE? Caspar holds up a finger with a bandage on it.
The three kings show Amahl and his mother the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the Child they are seeking.
That night when all seem asleep, the mother is tempted, All that gold! Oh what I could do for my child with all that gold!
She tries to take some but is caught and held fast. Amahl cries out, Don’t hurt my mother. I’m the one who lies and steals.
King Melchior responds, Oh, woman, keep the gold. The Child we seek doesn’t need it. He builds his kingdom on love.
She protests, Please take your gold. If I weren’t so poor I would send a gift of my own to such a Child.
Inspired, Amahl says, Mother, let me send the Child my crutch. Who knows, he may need it.
In that moment he is healed. They all cry out, He walks, HE WALKS!
As the opera ends Amahl leaves with the three kings to give thanks to the Child.
This was the first opera ever composed for television. It was an immediate success, because who doesn’t love the Magi? The Psalmist, centuries before the birth of Christ, prophesies, “Before him kings shall fall prostrate, the kings of Tharsis and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute”(Psalm 72). Isaiah writes, “The wealth of nations shall come to you, they shall bring gold, and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Is 60:5-6). During the Muslim conquests around 650 AD the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was spared destruction because of its frescoes of the three kings dressed in Muslim regalia.
In the 8th century a text by St. Bede the Venerable gives their names and descriptions. Johann Sebastian Bach composed cantatas for the Epiphany in the early 1700’s. And Hieronymus Bosch painted his famous work, The Adoration of the Magi in the fifteenth century. It inspired Gian Carlo Menotti to compose this children’s opera for television in 1951. Everyone loves the Magi.
In some parts of Europe chalk is used to write the first initial of their names over the doors of churches and homes, CMB: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These initials also stand for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning, May Christ bless this home. In Italy the Epiphany is the favored day for giving gifts. In Belgium children dress up as the three wise men and go from door to door to sing songs and receive treats. In Ireland, today is called The Women’s Christmas because they get the day off while men do all the cooking and housework! But only once a year, mind you!
Why do we love the Magi? Because they give witness that this Child is greater than all the kings and wise men of this world, and like the Magi we are also seeking this Child, for as St. Augustine writes, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Solemnity of the Epiphany
[Scripture Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12]
One of the things most school children dislike about school is being called to the front of the room to perform some task on the black board. One that I dreaded more than perhaps math was diagramming sentences. Getting the subject and predicate was not too bad, the object of the sentence was hard but doable, what to do with the adjectives and adverbs was a wild guess and compound sentences were, well, forget them, to say nothing of compound/complex sentencesthe name alone would scare you away!
I was reminded of this when I was reading over the first reading for today’s Eucharist from Isaiah. I kept asking myself who is the object of these sentences: “Rise up in splendor, your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you..” Who is the “you” spoken of here? Is it you? Are nations going to walk by your light, are the riches of the sea going to be emptied out before you? I know only a few people with egos so big as to think this is about them. No, it is not about you. The context tells us it is about Zion or Jerusalem. At the time of the writing Zion was in ruins, its glories long gone. So it is about the future Zion.
When we read the text from our Christian perspective we say it is not about Zion, it is about Jesus. He is the one whose light will lead the nations, the one the Lord God shines upon. It is only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost event that his disciples came to realize that Jesus was the Messiah the one who will restore Israel and Zion in his own person.
What we are celebrating today is the revelation that Jesus is not the Messiah just for the Jews alone but for the Gentiles too, for all people. Paul states it clearly that God’s secret plan has been revealed and it is this, in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews to redemption. This was a burning issue in the Apostolic Church. The Council of Jerusalem settled the issue and then began the quest for text in the Hebrew Bible that proved this decision was of Divine intention. The Gospel story for today’s feast is an example of this. It is built around two prophetic statementsone form Isaiah in the first reading and one from Micah about Bethlehem in the Gospel.
The Jewish Christians had a difficult time accepting the universality of Salvation but once they did the Church moved on. It is no longer an issue for us. So how do we appropriate this feast day into what are our issues? I suppose there are several ways to answer this question; one way is by asking ourselves why were the Magi searching for the new born king of the Jews? The Magi tell us themselves. We have come to do him homage. This word comes up three times and the third time it is evident that homage means adoration. When they found the child in the arms of his mother they prostrated themselves and did him homage. The Greek word is more accurately translated “worship“.They prostrated themselves and worshiped him. Here then is our entry way into this feast, our connection. Worship is the heart of our life. Adoration and worship are the ways we give ourselves to God. When men join our community at key points along the way they prostrate themselves and make a petition. That prostration is an act of humility and adoration. They are asking for God’s mercy and for permission to stay here in a life long act of worship and adoration. How many times during the day do we kneel in prayer, do we bow in adoration to the presence of Christ among us? Each bow is an offering of ourselves an enactment of our vows, a total gift of self to God.
We live this way because something of the mystery of Jesus has been revealed to us. We too have seen his star rising in our sky. It might not be that clear and like the magi, we may lose sight of it at times but we are here and we know that the light of revelation shines on us. Jesus at his birth, Jesus in the arms of his mother, Jesus presented in the temple, tempted in the desert, at prayer on the mountain, on the cross, at the empty tomb, Jesus glorified at the right hand of the Father, all the mysteries of his life have touched us, have been revealed to us and we bow down in adoration and offer the only gift we have, ourselves.
The wise men could read the stars but that is not why they are still relevant to us. Our science has gone far beyond them. They are wisdom figures for every age because they were seeking the creator of the stars. They are even wiser because when they found the King of the Jewsthe creator of the universe, the starsthey were able to recognize and worship God in the body of a small infant. Human weakness did not blind them to a vision of God clothed in our humanity and so they fell to the ground and worshiped. Let us be inspired by this and follow their lead as we worship the Father through Jesus in the Spirit at this Eucharist.
Solemnity of the Epiphany
[Scripture Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12]
In moral theology class we used to deal with such weighty issues as is it ever okay to lie. When we were kids we could get around this by crossing your fingers behind your back and lie. Somehow this erased the lie. As you got older you had many occasions to lie just to save your neck. To alleviate the guilt we called it a white lie. A refinement of this question is whether it is okay to be devious or deceptive. The Gospels have something to tell us about this.
After Jesus finished instructing his disciples on how to present themselves in the world, he concluded, “What I am doing is sending you out like sheep among wolves. You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves,”.
Clever as snakes and innocent as doves goes right to the heart of the question of who we are. The old scholastic definition comes in handy here. We are rational animals. We have that animal instinct to survive coupled with a spiritual capacity to transcend ourselves. The snake and the dove. We are not simple creatures. We are complex, multi dimensional, many layered mysteries of spirit and matter. St. James tells us fresh water and foul cannot come from the same spigot, but blessings and curses come from the same mouth. We can be duplicitous. Jesus seems to be turning this to our advantage. He sent the disciples out with the message of salvation. To succeed in delivering that message in a hostile environment they will have to know when to be wise as serpents and when to be innocent as lambs.
After thus instructing his disciples Jesus could have said, “remember the Magi?” Today’s Gospel is a dramatic demonstration, almost a theatrical enactment, on when to be shrewd and when to be childlike. Imagine for a moment you are at a play. The curtain opens and the astrologers, Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, adorned in beautiful, flowing garments enter Jerusalem with a message about a new born king of the Jews. Jerusalem is in a stir. Herod is outraged but feigns pious interest. The Magi, like doves walk into his trap. They promise to return but are warned in a dream not to, and slip away into the night. A case could be made that they acted in civil disobedience to a legitimate ruler. They were politically subversive since they were under the jurisdiction of Herod while in Palestine. There is a lesson for us in the Magi’s cleverness in dealing with corrupt authority.1
I was at a workshop once where the participants were given a list of ten values or virtues and asked to prioritize them. All of us had charity, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance at the top of our list, while ambition, zeal, and power were close to the bottom — power was the bottom. What kind of a religious would be out for power. However, this was the point of the exercise, when we do not use our power someone else will usurp it. Voting, for example is a power we should use for the good. Opposing unjust laws, such as abortion on demand, is an exercise of power. As Christians we have the authority of the Gospels to uphold in a hostile environment. Monks live on the margin of society but this does not mean we should not be wise as serpents in upholding God’s Name and Law.
The other half of the Magi story is about being innocent as doves. The dove is a symbol of the spirit. Either God’s Spirit as when Matthew tells us Jesus came up out of the waters of Baptism and the heavens opened and the Spirit of God like a dove descended on him., or our spirit as when St. Gregory tells us how St. Benedict was standing one day looking up into the sky and saw the soul of his sister leaving her body and entering the heavenly courts in the form of a dove, .
The Magi were stargazers. They looked beyond this earth to the far distant isles, to the stars that speak to us of order and predictability and security as well as romance, and poetry, mystery and magic. The Magi come to us as the archetypes of seeker, searchers, watchers in the night—all characteristics of monks. I like to think the Magi found for themselves and for us the center of the universe when the star halted over the house where the child was and they entered and found the child with Mary his mother. Every journey, every road, every search leads to the Madonna and Child. From that center radiates the light of the world. The Magi prostrate themselves in adoration and worship. Their gifts are a form of sacrifice, a giving of self without destruction. We cannot give our soul to anyone but God. When we adore we hand over our most precious gift, ourselves, our spirit, our heart; we release the dove of our being.
The Magi show us the dynamic of our liturgical life. It is a seeking, a finding and a giving. From the center of our being we offer ourselves with the sacrifice of Jesus to the Father which is the Eucharist.
Solemnity of the Epiphany
[Scripture Readings: Is. 60: 1-6; Eph. 3: 2-3, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12]
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the entire Christmas season we are celebrating is a commentary on the revelation expressed in the Gospel of John that God so loved the world that he sent his son so that all who believe in him may have eternal life and the world may be saved through him. For that matter not only the Christmas season, but the whole liturgical year reveals God’s love, and does this year after year. Even so, the revelation of God’s love is not exhausted. God’s love is a mystery in the full theological sense. It is not simply a puzzle that if I had more information, more intelligence or more anything, I would be able to figure it out. God’s love for us is beyond the human capacity to comprehend. Yet in order to respond to God’s love we need some understanding of it, no matter how incomplete our understanding may be. And so year after year the liturgy draws us deeper and deeper into not simply the knowledge of God’s love, but the experience of God’s love.
Advent recalled the yearning and hope of Israel, and our yearning and hope too, for a savior. Christmas revealed God’s not only sending a savior, but his becoming our Savior by becoming one of us. Today’s feast reveals that God’s response to human yearning is not limited to a particular nation or a select group, but is a message of hope for all peoples of all times. It also asks us what our response will be.
For Herod the coming of God into the world was a threat to his security and understanding of who he was. For the magi Christ was the goal of a quest. For us the coming of Christ into our lives is both an answer to our longing and a challenge to our familiar ways of understanding life and behaving. In order to receive God’s answer to our longing and hope we must be willing to give up many of the answers we have tried to provide for ourselves and many of the promises of happiness that society offers. We must be willing to continue on a quest without a clear idea of where it is leading us. But we have not been left to grope in the darkness. The unfolding of the liturgical year ahead will reveal not only God’s love for us manifested in Jesus Christ; it will also reveal Christ’s call to follow him and to manifest the mystery of God’s love to those who enter our lives. The Church will guide and support us as we try to answer Christ’s call in our own particular situations. The sacraments will nourish us as we walk on our chosen paths.
Like all of the mysteries that are part of the one mystery of God’s love the Epiphany of God-with-us is not limited to a particular point in chronological time. It is always with us. Christ is always and everywhere being revealed to us, often in hard to recognize ways and places. As free human beings we always exist with the choice between rejection or adoration. With the magi as our guides let us offer Christ the gift of ourselves and continue on the way of adoration.