Epiphany to the Gentiles; Salvation for All

This special Feast, normally celebrated on January 6th, commemorates the revealing of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles. In some European countries, the popularity of this Feast is known as the “Twelfth Night” (after Christmas). The meaning of the word “epiphany” has its roots in the Greek language. The first part of the word, “epi,” means “upon”.

The second part, “phainein,” means “to show/manifestation.” By combining these two meanings, “to show/manifest upon,” we are reminded of the manifestation of the glory of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). The Magi represent all honest seekers. From the Greek “magoi” we get our English word “magic” or “magician.” They were not illusionists like modern magicians, but rather they studied the heavens and tried to figure out the relationship between the stars and what is happening on earth. The Magi are also called “Wise Men” because they followed celestials signs that lead them to Christ.

Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Jesus to Jews and Gentiles as the Savior of the world.  It celebrates the same reality as Christmas (that the invisible God took on a human nature and became visible) but with different emphasis.  While Christmas emphasizes that God became man, Epiphany emphasizes the glory of the God-man to the world.  While God revealed himself to the Jews through Abraham, it is through the Magi from the East that he revealed himself to the Gentile Nations.

Unknown to Balthasar from Arabia was that Melchior from Persia was following the same star and unknown to both was that Casper from India followed as well. It was like an astronological drama that the trio met themselves following the same star heading to the same destination. What a happy meeting whereupon the anticipation and astrologicalgical interpretation of each was confirmed by the other. At that time in history the world outside the Judean country is represented by these three main countries: Arabia, Persia and India. Such that one can say they have come to represent every other person on earth regarded as the gentiles!

It was the seventeenth-century scientist Blaise Pascal; who among other things said: “There are only three types of people; those who have found God and served him; those who have not found God and seek him, and those who live not seeking or finding him.

The first is rational and happy; the second unhappy and rational, and the third foolish and unhappy.” We see those three types represented in our readings at Christmas time. Among the foolish and unhappy is King Herod. He pretends to seek God, but his real concern is to defend his power – and his pleasures.

Tortured by suspicions, he murdered members of his own family, including his wife, Mariamne, and two sons. This caused Emperor Augustus to remark; “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” Herod in an extreme way represents the class of people who neither seek nor find God. At the other end of the spectrum are those who have found God and serve him. Two obvious examples are St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can also include the shepherd in that happy group.

Today’s prophecy of Isaiah concluded with the words, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Is. 60:6). These words echoed the gifts that the three wise men from the East (Mt. 2:1-2, 9-11) brought to Jesus in adoration after following the shining star in the sky.

Today’s Gospel Reading relates to us the event of the three wise men who followed the star that led them to the Child Jesus. They followed the brilliant star in the sky. To them, the light of the star was a symbol of hope, of joy and of peace. To them, the star was but a small reflection of the fullness of the Light of the world that awaited them at the end of their journey.

The magi, the gospel tells us, had to search for him. The newborn king wasn’t where they expected him to be. They didn’t find him in a palace, among royalty.  They had to go outside the city, and travel further, to an out-of-the-way place, guided by the light of a star.

And there they found him, in a humble setting, with only his mother. Scripture tells us he came into a world that had no room for him, and that his first bed wasn’t a bed at all, but a manger. He came into a world that didn’t plan for him, or welcome him, and lived his first days among strangers.

In the stories of Jesus’ birth, two special groups of people came to visit the new-born babe: the shepherds and the magi. The church has no special feast to commemorate the visit of the shepherds but we have this special feast of Epiphany today to celebrate the visit of the magi.

Why is that? It is because the visit of the magi is an eye-opener. The shepherds learnt of the birth of Jesus through a direct revelation from angels appearing in the midnight sky. This is direct and supernatural revelation. Many of us have no problem with that. The magi, on the other hand, learnt of the birth of Jesus by observing a star. The star did not say anything to them.

They had to interpret this natural sign of the star to know what it meant and where it led. If we remember that the magi or the three wise men were nature worshippers, people who divined God’s will by reading the movements of the stars and other heavenly bodies, then we can see how the visit of the magi challenges some of our popular beliefs.

Notice how people of different religious traditions came to know that the Son of God was born. The shepherds who were regarded as unclean and could not take part in Temple worship without undergoing purification came to know through a direct vision of angels.

The magi knew through a reading of the stars. And King Herod’s scribes came to know through searching the scriptures. Therefore, visions, stars, scriptures are different ways of arriving at the same truth. Of course this does not mean that any religious tradition is just as good as the other. Notice how Matthew indicates that when the guiding star got to Jerusalem its light failed and the magi had to consult the scriptures to direct them to Bethlehem. Over and above the natural light of the star the magi still needed the supernatural light of scripture to finally get to Jesus.

Yet the crucial question in the story remains: Who actually got to find Jesus? Herod and his scribes who had the scriptures failed to find Jesus but the magi who followed the natural light of the stars were able to find him. Why? Because the Jewish authorities, even though they possessed the shining truth of revealed scriptures, did not follow it. They did not walk in the light of the scriptures.

The magi, on the other hand, who enjoyed only a star light followed its guidance. It is not the possession of the truth that matters, it is how prepared we are to walk in the light of the truth that we possess. It is better to have the dim light of the stars and follow it than to have the bright light of the Holy Scriptures and neglect it.

As part of Epiphany, during his earthly ministry, Jesus served both the Jews and Gentiles.  After his ascension, he used Cornelius to teach Peter that salvation is not for the Jews only but also for the Gentiles.  Baffled by this experience, Peter exclaimed: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

It is this revelation that Paul speaks about in the second reading today as an event that made the Gentiles coheirs and copartners with the Jews in promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6).  Through these sheds of manifestations, God brought all the Nations to come to know Him as their God.

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