Epiphany – January 8, 2017

The Church of the Contented Consumer, that is, American civil religion, has begun preparations for the commoditization of Valentine’s Day while we Catholics are stuck in the past (we’re still celebrating Christmas). Today is the final day of the Christmas season. Today we celebrate Epiphany, the unveiling of God’s salvation to the world. Although most people’s Christmas decorations are packed up and forgotten, we have one more day of Christmas to celebrate. Consequently, I would like to talk about Christmas this morning.

There was an editorial written by a Rabbi in the December 23, 2016 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The Rabbi expressed his appreciation for the Christian feast of Christmas. He said that he was fascinated by the sights and sounds and sentiments of Christmas. He noted that Judaism and Christianity have very different beliefs, but they share a common conviction. The central focus of both Judaism and Christianity is “to consider that which is transcendent, eternal and greater than us all.” Epiphany, the close of the Christmas season, is a feast of the transcendent, the eternal, that which is greater than the world. The feast of the Epiphany speaks about these very abstract ideas by using light as a metaphor. (Isaiah 60:3, Matthew 2:2)

There is a good measure of political posturing in Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi. The wise men came from the East in search of the newborn King of the Jews. In ancient gentile culture, the East (Persia, in the case of the magi), was considered to be the source of extraordinary wisdom. In their wisdom, the magi discerned the birth of a new King.

The magi assumed that a King for the Jews would be born in Jerusalem, so they made their pilgrimage to the holy city. They were wrong about the birth place of Jesus, and had to ask directions. Their lack of knowledge, however, was forgivable while Herod’s was not. Herod, the Jewish King, should have been familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, but he had to ask the religious leaders of the city for help.

With the help of able interpreters of the Scriptures, the magi were able to follow a star (a messianic symbol from the Hebrew Scriptures), to the place of Jesus’ birth. Following their own discernment, they steered clear of Herod on the journey home. The story is intended to affirm the faith of the gentiles who accepted Baptism in Matthew’s church community. Just as the magi grew incrementally in their understanding of Jesus’ birth, so gentile converts had grown from idolatry into an authentic faith in Jesus as Messiah.

In addition to legitimizing the faith of gentiles, this story provides insight into how God reveals truth to us, and how we appropriate that truth. In my homily on Christmas Eve I mentioned that the Catholic Faith is a lifelong project of making visible that which is invisible. God reveals eternal truth to us by means of historical events (the birth of Jesus, for instance). In the Incarnation, God’s eternal and unseen desire to ransom the world from sin was made visible. The appropriate response of faith is to make visible in our personal and ecclesial lives the invisible will of God.

Such talk of the visible and invisible is often derided by non-believers. We live in a culture that prefers to recognize only truths that are tangible, perceptible and measurable. Most of our contemporaries would laugh at the suggestion that “the invisible” is real, but I contend that the most real things in life are invisible. I’m not talking about “pie-in-the-sky” notions; I’m talking about the things we value most and the things we fear most. Love is not visible, but very real. Trustworthiness is not tangible, but so valuable that all of us want it for ourselves and others. Sadness and suffering are impossible to quantify but equally impossible to deny.

The Rabbi whose editorial I quoted concluded his remarks by saying that the light of Christmas dispels a great deal of darkness because “it challenges Christians and non-Christians alike to consider that which is transcendent, eternal and greater than us all.” Despite the differences between Judaism and Christianity, the Rabbi perceived accurately the central image of the Christmas season: light. Light isn’t something we see directly; our perceptions of light are actually perceptions of light reflected from solid objects. Rather than seeing light itself, we see the things illuminated by light. For this reason, the Scriptures use light as a metaphor for Divinely revealed truth.

In the light of Christmas we see the truth about God’s will. God’s desire is for us to perceive the invisible truth that God is transcendent, eternal and above us all. Having grasped this mystery, we are then obliged to treat one another as beloved of God. The most valuable, and most real, things in life are invisible and intangible. We practice a religion that takes this truth seriously by teaching us to “live in the light,” that is, to make the invisible manifest in our lives.

The end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of a new calendar year, is an invitation to rededicate ourselves to attend to the invisible. I’m not suggesting that you lose yourself in empty pondering, but rather that you make manifest to the world the Divine truth revealed at Christmas. Christmas is a visible reminder that the most valuable things in life are unseen, and that those things shine like the magi’s star – beckoning us to follow.