The Epiphany of the Lord

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today.  If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world.  Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp.  This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations.  When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations.

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness.  The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding.  I took my mother shopping in the pre-Christmas days, and as I drove through the shopping areas, I wondered what they’d look like in a year.  The economic downturn is a very dark place for so many people right now.  The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike.  And let’s not even begin to speak about the scandal in the governor’s office and politics in general.  There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it doesn’t seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all.

There may be darkness in our own lives too.  Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace.  Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times.

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.”

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself.  Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.”  A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it.  Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately?  Of course not.  But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take baby steps if necessary to walk toward that light.  We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, in our interaction with each other as people of faith.  Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord.

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us.  When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others.  “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.”  Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world.  We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that were covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too.  We spread that light by changing our lives.  We spread it by being people of integrity.  We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives.  We spread the light by reaching out to those in need.

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness.  There is always more light to shine on us.  Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others.  In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find.  We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ.  We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless.  We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace.  The riches and wealth of our God is never exhausted.

All we have to do is walk toward the light.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.”  Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s lordship manifested in a few different ways.  Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship.

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing.  The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading.  All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter.  But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers.  We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them.  We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike.  All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world.

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us.  We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us.  All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace.  Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives.  Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives?  Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected?  Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection.  We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways.  It will be a year of many epiphanies for us.

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Today's readings

We gather together today to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas.  Today is the traditional day for the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord, a time when we can see who Christ really is, when our eyes are enlightened, and our hearts are opened.  Because there is a gift to be had here today; more precisely, I think there are three gifts to be had here today.  The magi famously offered their three gifts: gold, frankincense an myrrh.  I don’t think we can expect to receive those gifts today, although we’ll use a bit of frankincense later in this celebration.  But the Scriptures today speak of three gifts that come with this Christ Child … the one who continues to lay sleeping in the manger on this holy day.

The first fist gift he brings us is justice.  Justice is what people long for in every age.  When everyone has what belongs to them, when no one is poor or needy, when the marginalized are brought into the community, when the wrongly imprisoned are free, when everything is right and we are all in right relationship with one another and with God, that is justice.  People have striven for justice in every age and place.  While we are all called upon to do what we can to make justice happen in our world, we know that we do not ultimately have the power to bring the real justice that this world longs for all by ourselves.  That can only be done by God, and in God’s time.  Our psalmist today says, “Justice shall flower in his days…” The gift the Christ Child brings is the possibility of that great day of justice.  We know that because Christ has died and risen, we can count on the salvation that will be ours on that day when everything is made right.

The second gift Jesus brings is peace.  Peace, too, can be an elusive thing for us, and peace, too, has been sought after for ages upon ages.  We often think of peace as the absence of conflict.  And that alone is daunting.  We have conflict in many places today.  We think of Iraq, Afghanistan, and many places in the middle east, to say nothing of Africa, Korea, and many other places.  I’m not even sure, honestly, how to count the number of wars being fought today.  And this says nothing about the lack of peace that is violence in our communities, discord in our families, and unrest in our hearts.  If we are to define peace as just the absence of conflict, it is clear that even that is beyond us. 

But that’s not how God defines peace.  Peace is more than a feeling, it is a way of living, or more exactly, a way of being.  It stems from the right relationship that is justice.  In fact, we are told that if we are to desire peace, we must work for justice because peace can’t happen in an unjust world.  If the mere absence of conflict is a peace that we can’t seem to achieve, how much less will we ever be able to come to a peace that is a completeness of right relationships with God and every other person?  And yet, this child in the manger is the one who has come to bring “peace till the moon be no more.”

The third gift Jesus brings is light: the revelation of the mystery.  And that’s what we celebrate today.  “Epiphany” means “manifestation,” it means coming to know what’s right in front of us.  Coming to see the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures, in the Church, in the Sacraments, and in every person and place.  It is a celebration of light, light that is the glory of God, appearing and overcoming the darkness of a world that does not know God.  Jesus came to a world that was darkened by the absence of justice and peace, into a world which in some ways didn’t want to be brightened by his life.  So basically, he was coming into a world not much different than the one we experience today.  Our time’s need for justice and peace is obvious, and the world’s refusal to come to the light is well-known.  But we have the light.  Jesus came to bring us that light.  Maybe it’s not the light of the star on that night, but it’s the light of Scripture, of his presence in the Eucharist, and his activity in the Church and in our hearts. 

We who have received the wonderful gifts of his justice and peace and light, are called to bring those gifts to the world, because the gifts we receive are never just for us.  St. Paul tells the Ephesians – and us – today that we are called to be stewards of these gifts, given to us in grace. And so, just like the magi, we are the ones who need to bring our gifts and open our coffers.

Epiphany is the feast of those called by God's grace to leave behind the familiar and accustomed and to go searching for Christ in, what seems to be, the most unlikely places.  Where will we find him and what gifts shall we bring when we discover Christ in our world?  In place of frankincense, we could advocate for poor families, especially for single parents and the newborn.  There are 25 million poor children in our otherwise-wealthy country, and untold numbers throughout the world. In place of gold, we could contribute to help those at shelters for homeless families, or international programs for children and the aged. In place of myrrh, we could visit the sick and dying.

The gospel story tells of a light in the sky that guides the foreigners to Christ.  We don't have the star; but grace is continually given to help us find Christ. God's grace does what the star did for the Magi, it guides us to the out-of-the way places where Christ can be found.  The Magi came bearing the types of gifts one would bring to royalty in a palace.  But today Christ isn't found in a palace; he isn't rich, he is poor.  The Epiphany reminds us that each day Christ manifests himself to us in the world's lesser places and in surprising people.  Those are the places to go looking and bearing gifts—starting with the most important gift, ourselves.

We will come forward in a few moments to pay homage to our king, just as did those Magi so long ago.  When we offer our gifts on this holy day, perhaps we can also offer the gift of ourselves, this gift that we ourselves have received from God himself.  As we begin this year, perhaps we can resolve to make our giving an act of gratitude for all that we have received.  Nourished by our Savior today, we can go forth in peace to bring gifts of justice, peace, and light to all the world.