Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany

January 8, 2012

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati



(Based on Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)


The feast of the Epiphany brings us into the presence of one of the most famous stories in the whole Christian tradition. The images associated with the adoration of the Magi are indelibly inscribed in Christian consciousness.


One way of responding to this account in Matthew is to do what countless great Christian mystics have done—what the Magi themselves did, in fact: simply to kneel in silent awe and adoration before the child.


Over the centuries a certain pious Christian imagination has given the faithful leave even to elaborate and embellish the actual Gospel text. It may come as a surprise to some that Matthew doesn’t give us the number three for these mysterious visitors. They are not called ‘kings.’ There are no crowns, much less the names that countless believers have associated with them: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. (In Germany and Austria it has long been customary for the head of the family to go from room to room in the house on the feast day, inscribing with chalk in the lintel of each room the sign of the cross over the letters “B, C, and M.”)


At another level we move beyond the realm of image and story, to explore the meaning of the event. What is the Epiphany all about?


The sheer word means ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation.’ It connotes the removal of darkness by the coming of light. To ‘have an epiphany’ is to come to insight or understanding, to be able to grasp something previously unknown or unknowable.


In the churches of the East it is not the feast of Christmas that dominates this season, but rather the great feast of the Epiphany.


Why? What is the reality that is being revealed in this event? What is the new understanding, the new truth, that is considered so extraordinary as to warrant such a major feast?


We might get some appreciation of what is at stake if we were to imagine the story of the Incarnation ending only with the birth of the Christ-child and the proclamation to the shepherds. No Magi event. If we only had Christmas we might conclude that the revelation of incarnation—of God taking on our flesh—was only for a few Jewish shepherds. Only for the Jews, for a particular group of people, however chosen.


Instead, with the coming of the Magi there is the blinding revelation that God’s favor and grace is bestowed on all people. On ‘the nations.’ The wisdom figures in the story are not Jews, they are Gentiles. We don’t have to become Jews to enjoy the Lord’s favor, to be freed from darkness and sin and guilt. Jesus is named Immanuel: “God with us.” And you and I belong within the ‘us.’


The prophet Isaiah tells the people to get up for the light has come. When I hear that passage I get the lovely image of the first instant of the sun appearing at dawn. You know what that is like. You have risen in total darkness and you look out your window or perhaps step outside. All is black. And then there are those very first glimmers of light. We begin to distinguish details; there is a horizon. Most of the world remains in darkness but there is something new happening.


The poet Homer had a rich phrase to capture the delicacy of the moment: he referred to ‘rosy-fingered’ dawn. The fingers of light bring a unique hue to where there was only black just an instant ago. At some deep level we are transformed. There is new expectation, new hope. We know that the light will grow as the sun ascends, that eventually all the crannies of darkness will be defeated and the whole world will be illuminated.


In English we frequently say that someone has ‘had an epiphany.’ Perhaps it is the aha! moment often applied to scientific discoveries. (Or, to use the language of our Twitter generation: OMG!)


The epiphany that takes place in the Christian psyche is not like that, however. Jesus uses other images to convey how the kingdom happens. It’s like the natural process of a seed buried in the ground, slowly—and with a force that will not be denied—pushing itself up and breaking open the crusty earth that would contain and strangle it.


Paul reminds us in today’s second reading that there was a time when the mystery of God’s universal saving will had not yet been revealed. And we only gradually come to the realization of all that is contained in that revelation. The process of conversion takes time, for each of us as an individual and for humanity as a species. But it happens.


We’ve all probably seen those illustrations in which the trajectory of the cosmos is depicted as a long line. The arrival of humanity occupies only the tiniest sliver at the very end of the line. As a species we’ve only been around a short time on this earth. And yet in that brief span of a few thousand years the process of learning what it means to be fully human has been rich. It was not that long ago that it was considered ‘normal’ for people to mock anyone with a physical deformity. To enslave other human beings was considered quite reasonable. Only in recent centuries has there been a growing consensus that capital punishment is barbaric. In our own time we are—ever so gradually, but really—coming to see that violence and war are not the way to deal with conflicting views of what is just.


I want to share with you a story from our own time. My nephew works for IBM and was recently transferred to Tokyo. Over the Christmas holidays he told me something extraordinary. He said you can go into even an up-scale restaurant in Tokyo and there on the menu there is a notice along these lines: “The food we serve comes from the Fukushima Daiichi district. Our farmers are suffering and we need to support them.” What an amazing manifestation of human solidarity! Can we even imagine people in our individualistic Western cultures being so identified with our neighbors as to risk eating irradiated food in order to support them?


The Epiphany does not take place in one blinding instant. Nor does it happen only in the broad arc of history. It takes place when a parent sits with a child and teaches him or her to read, or to play fairly, or to pray. It happens when a kid in school reaches out to a classmate who is being isolated or bullied by the rest of the class. It happens each time a couple asks one another forgiveness when there has been a breakdown of the covenant of love. When a worker goes about the job with integrity. When a community looks after those members less fortunate or stretches beyond its boundaries to join in common projects with people who are different. It happens every time someone does a deed of love and compassion and reveals to a neighbor his or her infinite worth and dignity simply as a fellow human being.


The message of the Epiphany is one of hope in the face of darkness. There are always new Herods in the story, to be sure. We live in a world where others want to suppress what we stand for as Christians, even with violence. They want to stop the spread of Christ’s light. They live around us and they live within each of us. The feast of the Epiphany is the Lord’s gift of assurance that the darkness cannot suppress the light.


John chiseled the message in that great meditation that introduces his Gospel:


What came to be through him was life,

   and this life was the light of the human race;

The light shines in the darkness,

   and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 3-5)