Most everyone likes a good mystery. As the narrative starts, we begin to wonder how it is going to come out, and increasingly we just have to know. This need to uncover the mystery lures us on. One important rule is that the conclusion cannot come out of the blue. Even with false leads and red herrings, the mystery’s conclusion is satisfying only if we have been given hints along the way. Another rule is that once the mystery is revealed, the whole plot ought to make sense.
God, it seems, has been luring us all along with his own mystery. Over 20 times in his letters Paul refers to God’s mystery being revealed. In our second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, he tells us that “the mystery was made known to me by revelation.” Further, this is the key to “insight into the mystery of Christ” (3:4). And what is that mystery, this key into Christ? Gentiles belong to the same body and are co-heirs and partners in Christ Jesus. This may seem anticlimactic, but do not count Paul (or God) short here. It was a highly controversial idea.
Like any good mystery, hints were laid from the beginning. In Genesis we learn that all the families will be blessed through Abraham (Gn 12:3). Isaiah regularly declares that God’s glory and salvation reach to the ends of the earth and that God desires all people to know him (e.g., Is 40:5; 49:6). Peter even sees the Pentecost event as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God’s Spirit would be poured out over all peoples (Acts 2:14-21).
Today’s first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, reflects this universalism with emphasis that the glory and light for the world are centered on Israel. Israel is the magnet drawing people in. Nations who are covered in “darkness” and “thick clouds” shall “walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” The nations will also bring gifts to God’s people and offerings to the temple. Isaiah mentions gold and frankincense.
The Gospel reading is about the Magi following the star that announces the newborn King of the Jews. Their gifts have been traditionally understood to refer to Christ’s royal (gold) and priestly (frankincense) dignity. The myrrh, a kind of perfumed ointment, anticipated his sacrificial death. These gifts from the nations are not the only Old Testament parallels. Consider, for example, that Jesus escapes from Herod’s slaying of male infants as did Moses from Pharaoh. Interestingly, Moses and Israel are blessed by Balaam, a magus (singular of magi) who comes from the East (Nm 22-24). More clues.
The word epiphany means manifestation. Surely this includes the star that manifested the birth of the savior. Here the light that Isaiah spoke of shines above the world’s darkness, announcing the King of the Jews to the whole world. The Epiphany feast also continues to celebrate the birth of Christ, the ultimate manifestation of God (Col 1:15). Finally, we celebrate the Magi themselves. Their journey to the newborn King of the Jews, their worship of him and gifts for him manifest that God’s universal salvation has come. Paul sees this last part as the core mystery of Christ.
While God’s will for universal salvation seems obvious to us, really embracing it, really integrating it into our hearts is as challenging as it gets. We may all believe that everyone is created in God’s image and loved and cherished by God. Still, we could check ourselves for any penchant to marginalize another. Who in our lives do we tend to dismiss or disregard? While we might easily say that everyone is created in God’s image, that God loves all and that all matter, is that really how we live? To truly penetrate this mystery requires that we take its implications seriously in our lives. A great epiphany is to know the glory of God’s love reflected in everyone we meet. It is a profound mystery, indeed.