Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany: The Light to the World

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Isaiah 60:1-3

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the day we celebrate the wise men of the East coming to adore our Lord and bring him gifts.  This day, like all other liturgical Feast days, is full of different meanings.  For many cultures, this is the real Christmas day, the day when our Lord opened up salvation to the entire world.  As Galatians 3:28 says:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The story of the wise men journeying to the little known and unimportant town of Bethlehem has many different elements in it.  The wise men, first of all, were aware that a King was being born because they looked beyond their own world, not living with their vision restricted just to their every day lives.  They realized there was something bigger in the universe than themselves.  When they received the sign of the brilliant star in the sky, they left all that was known and comfortable and set out to find the King for whom this star was a sign.  They gathered up all their most precious gifts and traveled across unknown lands, guided by the brilliant star.  They showed an amazing faith not seen in all of Israel.

Gentile da Fabriano: "Adoration of the Magi"
Since they were journeying to see a King, they naturally assumed that he would be born in a king's palace.   They went to the only palace in that region, which was that of the wicked King Herod.  Herod immediately advised them that the King they sought was not there, and thus they continued to follow the star.  The Star led them to a humble dwelling which did not deter them.  Matthew 2:11 says, "entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down, they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold (representing royalty), frankincense (representing the prayers of the faithful), and myrrh (used in embalming, which pictures the death of our Lord)." We should take note of how these men acted in the presence of the Lord.  They "fell down in worship."  They knew they were in the presence of Divinity, and they responded accordingly.  How often do we enter and leave a Church in which our Lord resides in the tabernacle, and give acknowledgement to our great Creator with no more than barely a nod of the head, and sometimes not even that much?   As St. Leo the Pope stated in a sermon,
As the Wise Men fell down and worshipped him in the manger, so let us fall down and worship him, enthroned omnipotent in heaven. As they opened their treasures and presented unto him mystic and symbolic gifts, so let us strive to open our hearts to him, and offer him from thence some worthy offering.
The gifts given by the wise men were not only to honor our Lord, but they also had a practical use, as the Holy Family would be needing these gifts to finance their flight into Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of King Herod.

Again we see the common thread of having to leave what is comfortable and journey to the unknown.  We saw this when Mary, after having just conceived the Christ Child, journeyed to her cousin Elizabeth's house for the birth of John the Baptist.  We saw the Holy Family journey from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem where our Savior was born.  We see the wise men journey from their homes in the East across many lands to worship the Christ Child.

And as just stated, the Holy Family must journey again to the strange and unfriendly land of Egypt to escape Herod.  We are told in Matthew 2:15 that this was done "that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son."  Egypt, the land from which the ancient Israelites were freed, is synonymous with slavery.  By making that literal journey from Egypt, Christ shows that He will be with us every step of the way as we come out of our slavery to sin.  We cannot be followers of Christ unless we are willing to leave the comfort of our lives in which we are enslaved to sin and journey with Him to salvation, taking each step in faith that He will guide us to our destination.

Below is part of the homily delivered by Pope Benedict XVI on January 6, 2006 regarding the meaning of this great Feast day:
The Magi worshipped a simple Child in the arms of his Mother Mary, because in him they recognized the source of the twofold light that had guided them: the light of the star and the light of the Scriptures. In him they recognized the King of the Jews, the glory of Israel, but also the King of all the peoples.

The mystery of the Church and her missionary dimension are also revealed in the liturgical context of the Epiphany. She is called to make Christ's light shine in the world, reflecting it in herself as the moon reflects the light of the sun.
The ancient prophecies concerning the holy city of Jerusalem, such as the marvellous one in Isaiah that we have just heard: "Rise up in splendour! Your light has come.... Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance" (Is 60: 1-3), have found fulfilment in the Church.
 This is what disciples of Christ must do: trained by him to live in the way of the Beatitudes, they must attract all people to God through a witness of love: "In the same way, your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your deeds and give praise to your heavenly Father" (Mt 5: 16). By listening to Jesus' words, we members of the Church cannot but become aware of the total inadequacy of our human condition, marked by sin.
The Church is holy, but made up of men and women with their limitations and errors. It is Christ, Christ alone, who in giving us the Holy Spirit is able to transform our misery and constantly renew us. He is the light of the peoples, the lumen gentium, who has chosen to illumine the world through his Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 1).
 "How can this come about?", we also ask ourselves with the words that the Virgin addresses to the Archangel Gabriel. And she herself, the Mother of Christ and of the Church, gives us the answer: with her example of total availability to God's will - "fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum" (Lk 1: 38) - she teaches us to be a "manifestation" of the Lord, opening our hearts to the power of grace and faithfully abiding by the words of her Son, light of the world and the ultimate end of history.
So be it!

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