Epiphany means “manifestation.” In today’s Scriptures, this can refer to many different things, all interrelated. During this Christmas season, we continue to celebrate the very presence of our God manifested in the Incarnation. Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being” (Heb 1:3). What is truly amazing and unique in Christianity is that God has manifested himself in such weakness. God has taken human history as his own, with all its vulnerabilities and weaknesses. One of the more interesting research insights I’ve encountered lately is that of Dr. Brené Brown, whose books and public interviews have inspired so many. Brown has discovered that vulnerability is the very key to courage, love and intimacy. Christians have known this for two millennia. We only need to look at our glorious savior, who came into the world poor and weak and ultimately submitted to suffering and death. This is the cost of love.
Christ himself was manifested by the star, which guided the wise men from the East. Our tradition has seen this as the fulfillment of a prophecy by the diviner Balaam, who announced a messianic figure: “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Nm 24:17). Identifying celestial activity as a divine sign would not have been unusual in the ancient world. Many even believed stars were spiritual beings (Jb 38:7). The Jewish tradition understood the Gentile Balaam to be a magus (the singular of magi), and we can see him anticipating the wise men’s visitation. Our Gospel reading today begins, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’” Their gifts to the newborn messiah manifest a great deal. Traditionally, gold signifies his kingship, frankincense his priesthood, and myrrh is an anticipation of his death and burial (Jn 19:39).
The magi themselves manifest the Gentile world’s often unknowing anticipation of the messiah. This is central to the first reading from Isaiah, in which “thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you his glory. Nations shall walk by your light.” God’s salvation is not intended for Israel alone. Rather, Israel will act as “a light to the nations” (Is 42:6), and God will offer salvation to “all the ends of the earth” (Is 25:22).
The magi manifest something else as well. They shed light on our own lives. How different are we, really, from the magi? Like them we are pilgrims on a journey. Instead of Arabian deserts, we walk through our own deserts in a life with thousands of smiles and thousands of tears. We encounter oases of love and the dry, lifeless sands of disillusionment. Human life is a kind of exile. The First Letter of Peter describes us as “aliens and sojourners” (2:11).
Where is our star? Where do we find our own epiphanies? One of the greatest gifts of St. Ignatius Loyola is that he teaches us how to look closely into our own experience in life. There we find God manifesting himself regularly. When I struggle with sin and spiritual sloth, I recognize the pangs of truth drawing me back. And upon coming back, I know his overwhelming mercy. Who cannot realize God’s undying forgiveness and not know that the messiah is among us? Just last week, I saw a homeless woman and her beautiful son smile in gratitude for the simple gift of a meal. The child was radiant. Is this not the gift of the face of Christ shining on me? When I sit with a friend and we confide our struggles—vulnerability again—I experience an acceptance that not only reflects God’s favor, but also becomes a sacrament of God’s grace. If we look closely, epiphanies are everywhere.