The Epiphany gospel is a continuation of the Christmas story in Matthew’s prologue to his gospel (chapters 1-2). The prologue is a theological masterpiece in narrative form through which Matthew anticipates the major historical events he will present in his gospel to explain the significance of Jesus for us.
The names of Jesus are revealed: Messiah, King, Son of David, Son of Abraham, Emmanuel (God with us). As Son of Abraham, Jesus fulfills the divine promise that in Abraham’s seed “all the nations of the earth will find blessing” (Gn 22:18). The miracle of the virginal conception heralds the beginning of the climactic end-time of sacred history. The gentile nations as foretold by the prophet Isaiah come to the New Zion with their treasures to praise the Lord. Jesus will be rejected by many, will suffer persecution and death, but will ultimately triumph through the Father’s providential care in the resurrection.
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew tells us that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem looking for the newborn king of the Jews. When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and asked the magi to bring him word of the child’s whereabouts so that he too could honor him. When the magi found the child with Mary, his mother, they offered their gifts in homage. Warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
The good news of Epiphany is that Jesus reveals the mystery of God to be self-giving love. Jesus is the epiphany of the invisible God in all the events of his life: as a helpless child lying in a manger, as a young man dying on a cross–the ultimate revelation that God’s glory is love. This feast reminds us that each Sunday’s liturgy with its gospel reading is an epiphany of the Lord to be reflected upon in prayerful study.
As in every offering of love, the Lord awaits the response of our hearts. Will it be that of King Herod who perceives it as a threat to his own autonomy and power? Will it be that of the magi who perceive the Lord’s offering of love as the fulfillment of the human quest for the ultimate meaning of life? Christina Rossetti in her lovely Epiphany poem “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” shows us the response that brings joy to the sacred heart of Jesus:
“What can I give him poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb
If I were a wise man I would do my part
Yet what I can I give him Give my heart.”
The meaning of Epiphany would be incomplete if we focus our attention solely upon God’s self-revelation in the past as described in Sacred Scripture. God’s Epiphany is a present event—in the wonders of the universe and nature; in the events of our personal history and world history; in the works of science and technology, music, art and architecture; in the sacraments; in people. In our liturgy today we pray for the vision to recognize God’s epiphanies, and the grace to extend a grateful welcome.
Every person is also called upon to be an Epiphany of God just as Jesus in his humanity was an Epiphany of the divine mystery. Every person in the unique particularity of his or her life can reveal an aspect of God’s truth, goodness and beauty that otherwise would forever remain unknown. Today we also pray for the grace to be totally transparent so that God’s glory may be made visible through us, and that people might discover peace and joy in that glory.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.