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The Epiphany of the Lord
January 7, 2018


     The feast of the Epiphany always comes at the tail end of a long line of liturgies - Christmas, Holy Family, Mary, Mother of God - but it has a way of holding its own.  I think that’s because the Epiphany has so many layers of meaning, each of them rich - every bit as rich as the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that the Magi presented to the Christ child.

     At its deepest level, the Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the nations – to the whole world beyond Judaism: all those people who never heard of the promises God made to Abraham and Moses, the gentiles whom St. Paul, in the Letter to the Ephesians, dared to call co-heirs, partners to the promise that God made to the Jews. The Magi, who were foreigners, outsiders, stand for all those people.  Think of the Magi as evidence of just how wide and all-embracing are the mercy and love of God. Think of them as the patron saints of all outsiders – however you define outsiders.

      But that’s only one layer of the feast. The Magi are more than outsiders. They are also seekers, searchers, sages. That’s why we often call them “the wise men.”   Unlike the shepherds who speak to those whose faith is simple and spontaneous, the shepherds who arrive quickly at the manger and gaze upon the Child in wide-eyed wonder, the Magi speak to those who have to struggle and wrestle their way to faith, those who come to faith only after a long and bruising journey that involves the rigors of the intellect more than the stirrings of the heart. The Magi are not only patron saints for outsiders they are also patron saints for searchers and skeptics.

     And there is yet another layer to the Epiphany. It is also a story about conversion and change.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Magi “returned to their home by a different route.”  Could that be a way of saying that once they found the Christ, the Magi were never again the same?  That their old convictions and certainties were forever altered once they encountered what they could never have anticipated: a king living in an animal shelter and dressed in swaddling clothes, marked for death from the start?  Of such experiences are profound conversions born. No wonder TS Eliot, in his great Epiphany poem, has the magi saying “We returned to our places…no longer at ease in the old dispensation….”

     And now let me share with you what I think of as still one more level of meaning to this feast.  The Magi set out to follow a mysterious star they had observed in the East – a star that, we are told, disappeared once they set out across moor and mountain to follow it.  Only on the last leg of the journey, after their visit to King Herod, did the star reappear in the night sky and go before them.

     This puts me in mind of people who spend much of their lives holding onto their faith when everything around them is utter darkness. Some of us are like that. If so, we are in good company.  I think of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and also, in our own time, of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Only after her death did we learn that she lived most of her life clinging to faith when God seemed infinitely far away and all she felt was a vast emptiness. “I loved Jesus in the night,” she would say. Along with the Magi, these two saints are perfect patrons for all of us who make our journey of faith in the dark when hope is slim and consolation non-existent.

     Having said that, however, I do believe that Mother Teresa did have stars to guide her. Her stars were just not in the sky.  They were on the ground.  Her stars were in the squalid streets of Calcutta. The poor, the sick, the abandoned, the neglected, the dying were the stars that led Mother Teresa to Jesus.

     And, my friends, it can be that way with us, too. We are surrounded by stars, too, and I’m not talking about those our popular culture commonly calls stars – rock stars, movie stars, professional athletes, celebrities and luminaries of one sort or another.  Those stars almost always disappoint.  No, we are surrounded by Mother Teresa’s stars - the no-counts of this world - the poor, the overlooked, the unattractive, the undocumented, the down-and-out, the suffering, the discriminated-against, those who are short on this worlds gifts but long on the gifts that really count: gifts like humility, meekness, patience, poverty of spirit, love.

     Pope Francis tells us that these are the ones who have much to teach us. He even tells us that we must let ourselves be evangelized by them – evangelized by the poor - and that if we don’t have solidarity with the poor, our relationship with God will suffer greatly. A sobering thought, and certainly a challenging one!

     So, my friends, perhaps instead of looking up to the heavens for the Epiphany star, we should be looking closer to earth, looking all around us, because the poor are there, and they are the ones who can truly light our way to Christ. They are the ones who, in a mysterious way, turn out to be Christ! 

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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