Saturday, January 5, 2008

Six Gifts of Epiphany


Today’s feast gives us one of the most familiar scenes of our Christmas readings – that of the three Magi coming to see the child Jesus. We sing the familiar hymn, “We Three Kings,” and we all know the story well. We all know how many gifts the wise men brought – three. But, today, I want to propose that there are actually six gifts in this Gospel story.

We all know the scene; three men in their rich oriental clothing, bearing three gifts. Our eyes are riveted on the gold. Our noses respond to the scent of frankincense and myrrh. They bow before the Son of God. But, in the midst of this great show, the Magi are slipping something in, on the quiet, that we might not see if we don’t look closely enough. It is something that they share. They have it tucked up in their sleeves, right next to their hearts. Even though the gold, frankincense and myrrh get all the press, this is actually their finest offering – even more precious than the gold. It is the fourth gift – the gift of their faith – the trust they place in a baby, their recognition of a Savior.

Although tradition numbers them as three and even names them as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, very little is known about the Magi. That they came from the East seems to be true. That they knew where they were going is surely a miracle of faith. They were prepared by prophecy for the coming of a Savior; they were guided by a star to the place where He dwelt. But, surely they were not prepared for the circumstances of His birth. The Magi were wealthy men. They had to be to make such a journey; they had to be to bring such costly gifts. Their rich oriental background and their exalted concept of kingship must surely have raised their expectations.

But, instead of a court, they found a cave; in place of a throne, they saw a manger; where they surely envisioned grandeur, they were confronted by poverty. It must have been quite a shock. Struck by this reality, lesser astrologers would simply have seen stars. These men saw the Light! After such a long journey, lesser men might have ground to a disillusioned halt. But, despite the length of their journey, the longest part of their travels came in the cave – a journey to belief. The Magi were wise, but not because they brought great knowledge with them, but because they discarded so much of it so quickly; not because they had full heads, but because they had open hearts.

Because of openness to the Holy Spirit, they accepted Christ in the poverty of His birth where others would reject Him even in the splendor of His Resurrection. We see the Magi in their full stature as they bow in adoration before Christ, the King.

The word, “epiphany,” means a showing forth or a manifestation. It originally referred to kings manifesting themselves to their subjects in great style. In the early Church, today’s feast was more important that the feast of Christmas. In the Eastern Churches it still is. There they call it the Theophany and celebrate it as a trilogy of manifestation. God’s glory manifests itself in the homage of the Magi, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan and His first miracle at Cana.

The Irish and probably other cultures too, always refer to this day as Little Christmas. But, most people hardly recognize this day. But they should and here we have our fifth gift. Today is the day the Savior proclaims Himself as Savior to the whole world; the day the King of Kings invites not just three wise men, but everyone to be His subjects; the day God gives Himself, in the person of the infant Christ, to all of humanity. The Creator of the universe lies in a manger with His arms held out. The Magi visited God and gave Him their faith and received in return hope and love. They gave Him their hearts and received back the greatest gift possible – God Himself.

In our lives, most likely there hasn’t been a single moment of epiphany. Rather, God has been gradually revealed to us over the years. He has been pieced together from the conviction of our parents, the influence of deeply spiritual relatives, the graciousness of catechists, even in the beauty of a warm Spring day. Our initial commitment to Christ was made for us in our Baptism. And we’ve been hopefully trying to honor that commitment ever since.

The challenge of this feast is to surrender to Christ; to commit ourselves to Him as the Magi did. The challenge is to no longer put ourselves first, but to put Christ first. To say no to any mediocrity of faith, the temptation to be drawn into sin, the insensitivity we can have towards those who are in need or suffering; to bow before Christ wherever we find Him – even if in unexpected places and unsavory people.

A simple suggestion for each of us might be to the time every day to look at our lives; a hard and good look at what we do and don’t do; and to make the necessary adjustments as God reveals them to us. If we do this, we just might stumble upon that same cave of epiphany that the Magi found. The fourth gift was their faith; the fifth was God’s gift of Himself. The sixth gift of this day is the genuine response of faith from us to a God who has revealed Himself in our midst.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have come to do Him homage.”

May God give you peace.

(themes from These Might Help by Joseph Cardinal Cassidy)

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