06Jan The Epiphany of the Lord

Is 60:1-6. In the age to come, the Messiah, the Saviour King, will reveal his glory to all the nations. To work for this is now the mission of the Church.

Eph 3:2-3, 5-6. The salvation revealed in Christ is for everyone. In his Church, there can be no exclusivness or racial distinction.

Mt 2:1-12. The visit of the Magi fulfils of the prophecy that the glory of the Messiah would be manifested to all the nations.

Theme:

The Wise Men followed a star to discover the birth of God’s Son in Bethlehem. If there is to be epiphany in our lives, like them we must use our heads as well as our hearts in our search for Christ.

Intercessions (Bidding Prayers)

We pray:
That our minds and hearts may always be enlightened by the gift of Christian faith, and be guided by that star.
That the expression of our faith may be both sincerely devout and intellectually honest, and that we may continue as searchers for truth, all through life.
That the church in our times may cherish its writers and intellectuals, and allow for honest, loyal criticism of our beliefs and practices.
That a spirit of genuine, probing scholarship be nurtured and respected, both in our society and in the church.

Searchers Find Him (John Walsh)

“Shine out Jerusalem, for your light has come; the glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the people. The nations come to your light. Everyone in Sheba will come bringing gold and incense.” These sayings of the prophet Isaiah must have been in the mind of St Matthew when he described the coming of the Magi to worship the new-born Saviour of the world in Bethlehem. So too must have been the words, which were recorded by Matthew but uttered by Jesus during his public life, when he praised the Roman centurion, a gentile, a foreigner, for his great faith, “I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from the east and the west to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of heaven, but the subjects of the kingdom (meaning the Jews) will be turned out in the dark” (8:10+).)

Roughly twenty-five years after his death on Calvary, this acceptance of Christ by the gentiles was described in his gospel by Matthew, in his beautiful story of the Wise Men from the east being drawn to Bethlehem by a star that shone especially bright in the darkness of the night sky, resulting in the epiphany or revelation to them of God in the person of the infant Jesus. The Apostles when trying to understand the events of Christ’s life had been taught by Christ himself to look for their meaning in certain passages of the OT, and so it is more than likely that Matthew linked the star of Bethlehem, shining serenely in the sky while night covered the earth and darkness the peoples, with a prophecy in the Book of Numbers, which promised, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (24:17).

Originally, this was seen as a reference to the founding of the royal house of David from which the Messiah would come. But Matthew went on to link the star with Bethlehem, which was the city of David, and moreover the town foretold by another prophet (Micah) as being the place chosen by God where the promised Messiah would be born. Since the royal line of David had long since vanished, the Messiah would not be a political leader but rather a spiritual one, and his coming, to a large extent, would be ignored by his own people.

It was mainly the gentiles, represented by the Wise Men, who were to be drawn to this Star of Bethlehem, and came to believe in God’s greatest self-revelation, through the person of Jesus Christ. We are told nothing of what the Magi said, but the gospel, in a concrete way, describes the sublime act of their perfect faith in him, whom they sought, “Falling to their knees they paid him homage.” Then they offered him gifts, gold as befitting a royal person, frankincense reserved for the worship of God, and myrrh, a substance used in dressing wounds and embalming bodies, signifying that this child was truly man, capable of suffering, and destined one day to die.

You may perhaps say that we have no gold, or frankincense, or myrrh. That is true, but we have something more valuable, precious treasures that we can present to Christ, our Saviour and our King. We bring gold to Christ when we try and make him king of our hearts. We offer frankincense when by our worship and prayer we proclaim his divinity. And we can, in some small way, alleviate the pain of the wounds he suffered for us by applying the myrrh of our own sufferings, our sorrow, our humiliations and tears.

The departure of the Magi from their own country is symbolic of every response of faith. When we make an act of faith, we abandon something, the kind of outlook which urges us to rely only on the tangible material world, and we allow ourselves to be drawn, as were the Magi, by someone who, although invisible, is more real than the world of sense around us. But we must always remember that we could never begin to seek God, draw nearer to God, unless God had already found us. The desire for God, the secret thirst for salvation that arises within us, is not begotten of any human emotion, but rather kindled by God himself.

When we are baptised in this faith we become the enlightened; we carry within us the light of faith; we are marked with the sign of God; we become Magi to others in our turn. As Pope St Leo the Great once said, “Whoever preserves in himself, or herself, the brightness of a holy life, becomes for many a star which lights the way to the Lord.”

Contrasting responses to Him (Martin Hogan)

We know from experience that different people can respond in different ways to the same thing, to the same event. People have different reactions to the Spire of Dublin. Some consider it to be a wonderfully modern symbol of Dublin at the beginning of the 21st century. Others regard it as a monstrosity and a scandalous waste of money. The gospel reading puts before us two contrasting responses to the news that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had just been born. Astrologers from the East were so excited by this news that they set out on a long journey to find the child so as to pay him homage. King Herod in Jerusalem was so perturbed by the same news that he sought to kill the child.

Today on this feast of the Epiphany we are asked to identify with the response of the astrologers, the wise men, from the East. They were people who were very observant of nature, God’s natural world, in particular that dimension of God’s natural world that came into view when darkness descended. They observed and studied the stars. Yet, they were not so fascinated by the stars that they worshipped the stars. They recognized that the stars, for all their splendour, pointed beyond themselves to some more wonderful reality, to God. So, when they heard that God was visiting our world in a new way through a child who had just been born, they set out in search of that child. These exotic figures from the East show us how being attentive to God’s natural world can draw us closer to God. This can happen in different ways for different people. For the wise men it was their fascination with the stars that led them to the true light of the world. For me, the sea can have a similar impact, revealing to me in some mysterious way the depth and power of God. The redness of a rose spoke to Joseph Mary Plunket of the redeeming death of Christ. God can speak to us in a variety of ways through the world of nature. The wise men teach us to be attentive and observant of that world, so that in and through it we may experience the presence of the living God.

There came a point on the journey of the wise men when they needed more that the signs of nature to find the child whom they were seeking. When they came to Jerusalem they had to ask, “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” To make the last short step on their long journey, they needed more than the light of a star. They needed the light of the Scriptures. The chief priests and the scribes who knew the Scriptures were able to point them in the direction of Bethlehem. On our own journey towards the Lord, we too need the light of the Scriptures as well as the light of nature. The Scriptures are a fuller revelation of God than the natural world. It is in and through the Scriptures that we meet God in a special way and his Son. St. Jerome, one of the great saints of the church and a Scripture scholar of his time, said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. The Scriptures are human writings, a human word. But we believe that they are also God’s word, God’s word in human words. Through the Scriptures God speaks to us in a privileged way. He asks us to listen and to allow our lives to be shaped by what we hear. The wise men allowed themselves to be guided by the Scriptures, as well as by the star. They showed something of that responsiveness to God’s word to which we are all called.

Having been moved by the presence of God in nature and in the Scriptures, the wise men came face to face with God in a child. They did not worship the star; they did not even worship the Scriptures. But they did worship the child, because they recognized that here was Emmanuel, God-with-us. We too worship Emmanuel, and we do so in a special way every time we celebrate the Eucharist. As the wise men expressed their worship by offering the child their precious gifts, we express our own worship of the Lord in the Eucharist by offering him our lives. We give ourselves to him in response to his giving of himself to us as bread of life. The gospel reading tells us that, after worshipping the child, the wise men returned home by a different way. Their meeting with the infant king of the Jews somehow changed them. Our own worship of the Lord in the Eucharist will often prompt us to take a different path too. We come to the Eucharist open to being changed by the Holy Spirit. We are sent forth from the Eucharist to follow the way of the Lord more closely. We pray on this feast of the Epiphany that we would be as open to the Lord’s call as the wise men in today’s gospel reading.

Star Of Bethlehem (Liam Swords)

Nobody disputes the fact that Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day. But dating it is quite another matter. Historians have never been able to agree on the year Jesus was born. There is even less certainty about the day or the month. Oddly enough, almost the only scientific data they have to help them in their search is today’s star. Astronomers can, with reasonable accuracy, date the appearance of this star. Inter-stellar activity follows its own fixed rhythms and so the appearance of new stars in different regions can be determined by computation. Fact is stranger than fiction. That part of the Infancy Narrative one would be most tempted to discard as fairy-tale, turns out to be the only thing that is scientifically verifiable. Whatever else has changed since Christ was born, the sky at night remains the same. Star-gazers today can follow the same Star the Wise Men followed.

Western tradition chose three as the number of the Wise Men and even found exotic names for them, Caspar, Melchior and Baithasar. Some suggest that they travelled from Persia or South Arabia, though Matthew simply indicates that they came from the East. The gospel leaves no doubt that they were individuals of strong conviction, enquiring minds and adventuresome spirit. In a word, intellectuals.

The point should not be overlooked. The church has not often shown such welcome to that beleaguered community as its infant-founder. In those rare periods when it did, religion truly blossomed. Oddly enough, the improvement of conditions in the communist east traces its origin to an alliance between the churches and the dissidents. They make natural bedfellows though it often takes persecution to convince them. It was intellectuals who first discovered the star of Bethlehem. No church, no religion can be authentic, that does not cherish specially its poets, its writers and its thinkers. The true church in the world is an island of saints and scholars. Stars reveal their secrets only to dreamers.

Their astronomical enquiries brought the Wise Men as far as Jerusalem. Astronomy could take them no further. There, they had to consult other experts. The Jews were the people of the Book. Only biblical scholars could shed further light on where the Messiah was to be born. So the chief priests and the scribes were called in, through the intervention of Herod. They had not long to wait for an answer. The Bible quickly yielded up its awesome secret. “And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the Leaders of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.” Their search had narrowed down to Bethlehem. Enquiries at the inn might well have led them to the manger. The star, the symbol of their inquiring minds, went forward and halted over the place where the child was. Or did they hear a baby crying?

The investigation of the Wise Men is a fine illustration of the Latin adage intelligentia quaerens fidem (intelligence seeking faith). The message for us is simple. If ever there is to be an epiphany in our lives we will need our heads as well as our hearts. We can ill-afford to ignore the insights of intellectuals.

Meditation on the Epiphany (Tommy Lane)

We imagine ourselves in the presence of baby Jesus, and Mary and Joseph. We are surprised to see men of eastern appearance come. They see baby Jesus and fall on their knees. They offer him homage and give him presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh, gold because Jesus is king, frankincense since Jesus is divine and myrrh prefiguring his passion. They tell us about the star and about Herod who knew nothing about Jesus’ birth. After their stay they set out on their return journey eastwards but not via Jerusalem since they want to avoid Herod. After their departure we spend time with baby Jesus. Baby Jesus, we do not have gold, frankincense and myrrh to give you but we can give you our love. Let our love be your manger. For a moment now let us love baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus, even while you were only a little baby you experienced both acceptance from the wise men and rejection from Herod. The wise men and Herod had two opposing attitudes, searching for God and being closed to God. Baby Jesus, we see that the wise men were blessed in their search for you by finding you. We are searching for you too, we want to come ever closer to you. Help us to draw ever closer to you and if we are closed to you like Herod, help us to open so that we can find you. Let us ask Jesus to help us in drawing closer to him.

Baby Jesus, not only had the wise men and Herod different attitudes to you, they also had different attitudes to life. The wise men were generous, Herod was selfish wanting to hold on to his throne. The magi gave you gifts, Herod killed all boys under two years of age. The wise men were willing to put energy and goodness into life, Herod wanted to get all he could from life. The magi who sacrificed to put into life were happy, Herod who took all he could from life was unhappy. Baby Jesus help us to foster a healthy attitude towards life, giving and caring, instead of grasping, and being selfish and possessive. Let us pray now asking Jesus to help us develop ever more wholesome attitudes towards life.

The magi were lucky. They were given the guidance of a star. In the darkness of this world we have all been given help on our journey to God; the beauty of nature, the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, Spirit-filled witnessing and preaching, the faith of others and our own faith. For a moment let us thank God for giving us stars to lead us to him.

When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, it seems they no longer had the guidance of the star, otherwise they would not have had to ask Herod for advice. Sometimes we too feel as if we’re in the dark, like the magi. Sometimes what or whom we relied on is not there any more. Sometimes we see only darkness around us. But we know that you are there, Jesus, and that eternal life awaits us even if sometimes in this world there is no star for us. Lord in our moments of darkness without a star, help us not to give up but to keep searching, hoping and praying because that would be the best way forward. Let us pray now for strength to remain steadfast when there is no guiding star.

Follow Your Star (Andrew Greeley)

In this year’s readings the whole story of the Epiphany is told. Next week we read the story of the second manifestation of the Divinity of Jesus at his Baptism and the following Sunday – “Cana Sunday” we witness the third manifestation at the Marriage Feast in Cana. Today we hear about the first manifestation to the “Magi” or “kings” who were more likely astrologers. They tell us a story of Jesus coming for all humankind, a story with richer and deeper implications today than at the time of the Gospels. Despite our tradition of Caspar, Belthassar, and Melchior, the Greeks and the Russians hold that there were twelve kings. Since there were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles, they argue that there had to be twelve kings. Our tradition of three is based on the fact that three gifts were mentioned. No matter how many of them there were, they were men who, as the carol says, had the courage to follow their star.

Story: Once upon a time, there were three young women, best friends since their early school days. They were bright, imaginative and creative young women who in the eyes of their peers seemed a “bit different.” In their high school days, their peers considered this difference a sign of weirdness, and thus an excuse for excluding them from all the cool things that the “in crowd” did. Some wondered why they wanted to spend so much time studying or doing volunteer things or reading or, God forbid, going to the symphony instead of rock concerts. At times, the three friends were hurt by the words and actions of their peers. But, being women who dreamed great dreams, they couldnt give up the things that challenged them to want something more, even when they weren’t sure what that more was. Imagine the surprise of their peers when at their ten year reunion, the three were the most successful members of their class, had traveled widely, had charming escorts and were up and coming stars in their careers.

First Reading: Book of Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, / and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. / For darkness shall cover the earth, / and thick darkness the peoples; / but the Lord will arise upon you, / and his glory will appear over you. / Nations shall come to your light, / and kings to the brightness of your dawn. / Lift up your eyes and look around; / they all gather together, they come to you; / your sons shall come from far away, / and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; / your heart shall thrill and rejoice, / because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, / the wealth of the nations shall come to you. / A multitude of camels shall cover you, / the young camels of Midian and Ephah; / all those from Sheba shall come. / They shall bring gold and frankincense, / and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Second Reading: Epistle to the Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6

Surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.