The message of Epiphany: Rise up; Your light has come!
Two feasts of the Christmas season celebrate Christ’s revelation to the whole world. Today’s feast commemorates the “physical” revelation of Christ, the moment when Gentiles recognized the incarnate Messiah.
‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’ (Mt 2:2)
Do you know how to seek the incarnate Christ?
Will you know when you have found him?
Have your efforts guided another person to find Christ?
Tomorrow we celebrate a “spiritual” revelation of Christ. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the moment when Jews and Gentiles together recognized the divine sonship of Jesus. These two feasts mark the return to Ordinary Time, that period of the liturgical year when the church reflects on its continuing mission to reveal Christ to the world in body and spirit.
The story we hear as today’s Gospel probably existed in some form before Matthew incorporated it into his account of the life of Christ. That earlier version found the fulfillment of several prophecies in the birth of Christ, including pronouncements from the prophet Micah and the seer Balaam. Matthew highlights the great vision of Isaiah 60 in the attention he gives to the magi and their gifts. In Isaiah’s prophecy God’s mercy to Israel becomes an act of divine mercy to the whole world. This prophecy comes from a time when the Jewish people had returned from exile but before they had rebuilt Jerusalem. Just as God had summoned the nations to chastise Zion, God has summoned them again to restore the city. People from every corner of the earth will come bearing gifts and reparations for the Temple, the city and its people. As they stream toward Jerusalem, they encounter for the first time the divine illumination that Israel had always known. God’s mercy to Israel thus becomes a gift for everyone.
In Matthew’s hands, this prophecy foreshadows the Christian community’s inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus is the new Zion, the new place in which God has taken up residence on earth. The magi’s gifts, which represent, among other things, earthly wealth, religious insight and mortality, are the reparations humanity offers to God through the magi. The joy they found at the end of their journey is one of the first effects of the divine illumination now available to everyone.
This twofold act of divine mercy continues today. The Christian community is the restored Israel. Like the returned exiles of the first reading, Christ’s disciples often first come to him in great need. Whether we are cradle Catholics or recent converts, Christ’s tangible presence in our lives is a mercy we cannot do without. In the liturgy, the sacraments, the Scriptures, our fellow Christians and sacred times and places, we can encounter physical reminders of the incarnate Son. Like the magi, we can respond with our best gifts—our industry, our devotion, our very lives.
We disciples are Christ’s tangible presence in the world. That same child whose light brought such joy to the magi now, through us, offers his mercy to every person. Through us, every day, Christ feeds multitudes; he heals, teaches and guides countless people. Through individual volunteers and major institutions, through simple acts of kindness or worldwide coordinated efforts, the world can encounter, through the Christian community, the enduring, tangible presence of Christ.