This Sunday, the universal Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany. At King’s College, in Cambridge, England, on the east wall of the chapel, behind the altar, there hangs a famous painting by the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, called The Adoration of the Magi. It is often immortalized by its reproduction on Christmas cards throughout the world. Three travelers from the East have journeyed far to look for the “infant king of the Jews.” The Christmas story, as told by Matthew, gives us insight into this great feast – the revealing of Christ to the peoples of the whole world. In Matthew’s Gospel, we meet the powerful political figure of King Herod. This man displays all the force and fallibility of any human leader. Once in power, his main objective seems to be to stay that way. Power that could be used to help humankind also can easily become corrupted into a force for destroying humankind. Herod’s wrongdoing has certainly made him so self-obsessed that he even fears the birth of a child as some kind of threat to his throne.
Herod’s advisors, the religious and political elite of that time in Israel, gather to discuss the political situation. These people are experts on how to manage things, so as not to rock the boat. They seem to know what they are talking about. They certainly know where the Messiah will be born. But they don’t seem to be much interested in when, so long as it does not upset their routines of control. These people enjoy their position and their work, but they are not interested in the wider world. The travelers, however, are very interested in the wider world picture. They are seekers after wisdom; they look for the meaning of things. They don’t settle down in the comfort of the here and now. Their whole life is a journey, and they seek answers to life’s great questions. When they find a “lowly cattle shed,” they fall on their knees in homage to a child. All their searching and all their studying has brought them to this place, and to this newborn king. This feast invites us to join the Magi, and to become wise travelers through this world.
There’s a great temptation in our lives, to become like Herod, ruling our lives according to our own desires. We can also be tempted to become political and religious experts, like Herod’s advisors, viewing the world according to our own theories of who’s right and who’s wrong, and never getting beyond argument. One look at the political situation in our country, especially regarding a cure for the Covid-19 virus might give us some insight to understanding the situation of that time.
Alternatively, we can go on the journey, like the Wise Men, and look for the child, and adore when we find Him. When we accept this challenge, then, for as long as we are on this Earth, we are on the journey. St. Peter, who spent many a day in Jesus’ company, was never finished with learning. There is always so much to discover. “The truth I have now come to realize,” Peter said on one famous occasion, “is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Another great disciple, the recently canonized St. John Henry Newman, an English convert and cardinal, said in a sermon for the Epiphany in 1839, “When men understand what each other mean, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.” This is the challenge of today’s feast – that we go out and embrace the world.
Pope Francis speaks about the Epiphany as both a historical event and a part of each of our lives. In his book, Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus, he says that we are to be epiphanies, that is, manifestations of Jesus in our daily lives. Pope Francis challenges us to share the joy of the Gospel with people we meet. We are to manifest Jesus in our thoughts, words and actions. Maybe we can help a friend to find new meaning in life. Perhaps we may have a new desire to speak of our faith in Jesus. Maybe we’re more ready to love in a difficult situation. The Epiphany invites us to find a new path and a new route as we begin this new year. The Gospel message calls us to be more open to people who are fragile and vulnerable, weak and poor, and in this way share our hope and joy with others.
Each time we worthily receive the Holy Eucharist, we experience Jesus as the light for our hearts and the one who lifts the burdens of our sins from our shoulders. As we approach Christ in Communion at every Mass, you and I can truly say that we who walked in darkness have seen a great light. May our celebrations of the Eucharistic sacrifice always fill us with an awareness of the grace and peace that comes to us from God our Father through Our Lord Jesus Christ.