Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany

January 4, 2004

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 60:1-6; PS 72:1-2,7-10; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?"

All throughout the season of Advent the church invited us to pray about the coming of the light. And now that the Light of the World has come as a child in Bethlehem the Christmas season draws to a close with the feast of the Epiphany.

Epiphany is all about unveiling, revealing, disclosing, expansion of the light. The glory of the Lord expands beyond the Jewish people, reaching the Gentiles. To the ends of the earth. Midian, Epha, and Sheba -- these are just symbols of the universal gift of salvation in Christ.

Isaiah had named the darkness that covered the rest of the earth, contrasted with the light shining on Jerusalem.

But just think about what happens when the night begins to wind down and the first light of dawn appears. All does not become light in an instant. Instead there is a gradual process which makes it possible to discriminate and make out shades of darkness and grays. "That looks like a table over there -- oh, I see that it's a trunk." Only after some time are we able to see as the light penetrates into different nooks and crannies.

And apparently that same process of gradual illumination is God's way of revealing and dealing with the people. with you and me. Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We don't come to a full realization of the answer to that question in an instant, it takes long spiritual growth.

During Advent I made a curious discovery about our church's history.

To grasp its full significance I invite you to place yourself with the Christians at the end of the first century. By that time they had all the scriptures. They knew all of Paul's letters and all the Gospels. So they knew the story of Jesus' infancy in Matthew's account and in Luke's. It was exciting light. But how would they portray it in art? What do you depict if you had lived then?

The interesting fact is that for several centuries there were no depictions of a stable or shepherds and oxen and asses and straw. They came much later. In fact, it wasn't until the late 12th century that Francis of Assisi taught the people to make creches and Christmas cribs.

Then what did they depict in those early centuries? They depicted Jesus the good shepherd, for sure. But as for his birth they depicted the magi. Only they transformed them from wisdom seekers into kings. The magi weren't described as kings by Matthew; they were wise men seeking light, seeking the answers to life.

Why this focus on kings rather than shepherds?

I'm sure that it had much to do with the exciting insight that revelation had broken out of the Jewish world, that God's light was to touch the pagans, the Gentiles. As Paul says in today's passage from Ephesians, the Gentiles were equally heirs to the riches of God's love; they share the same body and enjoy the same promises.

But I have a hunch that there was something else at work, that the church had to grow in insight about the full meaning of the incarnation. Just as each of us does as an individual believer. The church was paralleling our own personal journey of faith.

At the start of our journey of faith, as children, we need the extraordinary. The Gospels refer frequently to Jesus' words to the people about needing signs. We need the dramatic. We need miracles; we need Lazarus; we need the empty tomb. God has to grab us, to get our attention.

The full mystery of incarnation, of God taking on flesh, taking our flesh, becoming fully like you and me -- and above all, taking on the flesh of a slave given over to death -- is just too much to absorb.

So the light dawns. But exactly like the physical dawn, it comes slowly. Gradually penetrating the surrounding darkness.

It takes the church some time to get beyond kings, to get to the little people, the poor, the anawim. (In this the church is no different from secular society. Historians start out to write the history of a country and its people, and they wind up writing the story of its emperors and generals.)

You mean God pitched his tent in shepherds and oxen, in a feeding-trough, in a child totally like us?

The journey of the light from Bethlehem to California Avenue and Reading Road and Paddock Road is long and winding. The epiphany, the full unveiling of the light in our hearts is longer still. It is a life-long process of discovery, of breaking through veils which we put up to hide from the full meaning of it all, from its demands on us.

When Jesus comes to desrcibe the last days of creation he says that there will be false prophets who shout "He's there!" No, "he's over there!" False prophets project special places we have to go to; the old magical view of God, the melodramatic. How hard it is to come to recognize that there are no "there's", no special places where we have to go to find him -- the Lord is here. In the moment. On the spot. Now. In our flesh. In the person right in front of me, the person in need. The one sitting next to me in the pew.

In one of his epistles John tells us that each human is already a child of God. But what that one is destined to become is beyond our imagining. It is beyond the light by which we now only see dim grays. That overwhelming bright light has yet to be given. But the more we can see the person in front of us as a child of God already, the more we can know ourselves as sources of light, the more we ourselves can be light..

John says that one day we shall become like god because we shall see him as he is. And I wonder if that is only a description of what we have come to call 'the beatific vision.' It may in fact just be a description of what God is disclosing for us even now. We shall see him as he is: in the stable, yes, but also in each room of the buildings on our Christmas quilt. In our homes and offices and on our streets, in our supermarkets and laundromats and beauty parlors.

"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?" was the question of the magi. It was right for them, but I would suggest that maybe our question should be rather "where is the Christ the light of the world?" If we really ask to be given the answer to that question, we may find that it takes us to places that could surprise us --- or shock and scandalize us. Places where we are called to love. Places where the light could be all but blinding. But places that will also cause us to stretch and grow.