Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany

January 6, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

During the holidays when I was with my family, my grandniece showed me photos of her trip to China this past fall. There were hundreds of wonderful images. They captured and told an engaging story. We were transported to Shanghai at night, looking out from the 55th floor of an apartment building, with light shining on the river below. Beijing, with Tiananmen Square shrouded in smog (it made me wonder whether it will be worth trying to see the Olympics on TV this summer). The Great Wall, and shopkeepers in little villages. It’s all available for her to revive memories of a great experience any time she wants to.

BUT – only if you can get into the computer.

Otherwise it was a box of wires and plastic. I was reminded of the scene in 2001 when the apes are shown trying to figure out what a TV set might be for.

Why am I telling you all this?

We celebrate today the great feast of Epiphany. A celebration of illumination. Of revelation. Unveiling. Exposure. The disclosing of the divine in human flesh — flesh like yours and mine — in the Incarnation of Jesus.

Of course the power and energy of the divine had been at work at every instant and in every last atom of this universe from the first second of the Big Bang right down to our day. All the enormous potential was always there — but it was like the power that scientists always suspected was present in a single atom. It was locked up, unavailable, inaccessible and unusable.

Paul speaks of a mystery hidden for ages, not made known to earlier generations. At a given moment, in God’s time, it breaks through. It can no longer be held back. It comes as light, radiant and beginning to illuminate a world still in darkness.

Isaiah, speaking to a ragged people beginning to return from their long exile in Babylon, portrays Jerusalem as a beacon, drawing people to it from far and wide. Finally they will be liberated and be able to return to a renewed city, to a revitalized temple.

And both of them speak of this light as a light to the nations. To the Gentiles. The light is revealed first to the Israelites, but it is not their property. It is not exclusive. The Gentiles are co-heirs of the salvific love of our god.. Our God is expansive, the divine light cannot be contained. “The nations” is shorthand for the whole width and breadth of creation.

You and I walk an earth that is permeated with the light of our god. Divine energy and power hold it all in being.

But unless we are open to receive from God the power of spiritual sight, the key to making it genuinely accessible for us on our journey, the whole universe is like an inert atom. It’s like a computer chip that is unattached to anything. Or — a “floppy!” (Holding up an old floppy)

Remember these? There are young boys and girls in our midst today who haven’t the foggiest idea of what this is or what it’s for, and yet 15 years ago we couldn’t be without them.

Just think what I hold in my hand. And what it might hold. Perhaps a copy of the Magna Carta. Or the Declaration of Independence. The Emancipation Declaration. Or incredible images. The Mona Lisa or DaVinci’s Last Supper. Even some words I thought would be ageless when I wrote them. But without a ‘key’ it’s useless, lost. All that knowledge and insight and beauty could wind up on a trash heap and fifty years from now someone who found it might wonder if it was some sort of coaster we used for our drinks.

In Jesus the light which could not be contained breaks through. Do you want to see God? This is what God looks like, in human form. (You know, it’s heresy to think that Jesus’ human nature was in any way different from ours.) This is what our flesh — yours and mine — is capable of.

The Magi are symbols. They reveal to the Jews that God’s light cannot be contained. It will spread to the ends of the earth. It will be bright enough to illumine all people. But it does not burst forth in fireworks. It begins almost imperceptibly, in the form of a tiny child. It takes the gift and grace of the Lord to recognize its faint beginnings as it makes its way from the first glimmers at dawn and then in successive waves until the day when it will illumine everything and show us what was always going on even before we could recognize it. Remember what we frequently sing: “His truth is marching on.” Indeed it is, and it will not be stopped.

We received a new epiphany, a new revelation of that conquering light this past week. On Thursday night in Iowa even the most hard-hearted and blind observer must admit that a new glimmer of light shone forth in our land. White folk by the thousands proclaimed that they are ready to be led by a black man. They shed years of prejudice and bigotry and ignorance as they declared, “Yes, we believe that a man of color can lead this nation.” Light overcame darkness, truth took another step forward in our world. We should thank our God.

Let’s be clear, though. Barack Obama is not the light of the nations, in case anyone needed to be reminded of that. That’s been done before. He may not even be your preferred candidate. In a sense, he is not the story. But he was the instrument used by God to reveal to us a new possibility, a new reason for hope: that ignorance and bigotry and prejudice can be overcome. And if it can be overcome in those white folk in Iowa it can be overcome in us, in thee and me. Our blindnesses and prejudices are not the last word. It is not the full light, but it is one more step on that long process which will reach its fullest radiance when every last one of us comes to realize that we are all — without exception, across this whole great earth — simply brothers and sisters, members of one family, co-heirs of God’s kingdom.

We should know, by now, from hard experience that of course once even a tiny light begins to glow the forces of darkness and bigotry will try to blot it out. They will try to quench it or make us think it was only an illusion. For every three Magi there will always be a Herod with his soldiers ready to murder the innocent. Those who stood up and gave witness to the light will pay a price.

After all, isn’t that what happened in the case of Jesus himself, the light of the world? In the prologue which announces the whole thrust of John’s gospel message we read that “He came to his own and his own received him not.” But lest that sad truth dishearten us, John goes on to declare that “To those who did receive him he gave the power to become children of God.” And Jesus himself spread the light further when he said at the Last Supper that we would do the deeds he did — and, in perhaps the most amazing phrase in the Gospel — “even greater than these will you do.” God’s truth will not be denied, it will go marching on! It can triumph over our personal blindness and darkness.

Whether Barack Obama goes on to be elected or not is ultimately beside the point. The people of Iowa — and especially the young about whom we older folk can sometimes be so untrusting — have seen, and revealed to us, a light stronger than the darkness that so often separates us from one another.

Our god has blessed us with a new hope, one more epiphany in a world full of epiphanies. If we are truly to show gratitude for this gift we need to ask for a further gift: the gift to recognize all the little epiphanies that we walk by every day. The young men and women who survive and make it in spite of the incredible barriers they confront in our society; the men and women who simply will not be controlled by the insults and exclusion they face every day; the individuals and groups who continually create new networks of care to serve the least in our land. We must ask the Lord to have our eyes, and our hearts opened, to witness truth on the march.

I want to tell you of one small unexpected epiphany I had just before the nine o’clock Mass this morning. As people were assembling Tim was playing softly on the organ. He was playing some of those great Christmas carols that are part of our very bloodstream. As I walked past him, all of a sudden I had a flashback. He was playing “Away in a Manger” and I recalled — as some of you may — that when we were kids we weren’t even allowed to sing that carol. Why? Because the text was written by Martin Luther. . . . The truth does march on.

I leave you with a New Year’s gift. (You know that stories are the greatest gifts.)

Riverside Church is a great non-denominational Gothic church in the neighborhood of Columbia University. It is the church of many of the great movers-and-shakers in the city. A few years ago they were going to have a Christmas pageant. The young boys and girls were acting out the parts of Mary and Joseph and the other players in the story. A boy of about ten who is a Down’s syndrome child was picked to play the part of the innkeeper. He had only one line: “There is no room in the inn.” And he repeated the line over and over all through the weeks before the pageant, making sure he wouldn’t forget it.

On the night of the festival Joseph and a very pregnant Mary made their way slowly up the middle aisle to the innkeeper standing at the entrance to the sanctuary. They asked if he could give them a room, in light of Mary’s condition,

The boy came through and declared his line very clearly: “There is no room in the inn!” Joseph and Mary turned to each other, making gestures to show how sad they were. They turned to go down the aisle, when suddenly the boy called out, “No! Wait! You can stay at my house!”

You can stay at my house.

No small epiphany. If we really understood all that was being revealed that night we’d have it all.