Matthew’s story of the visit from the wise men offers us a contrast in approaches to Jesus and God’s action in the world. For the past two weeks we have been celebrating the festival of Christmas – a celebration that begins with welcoming the Christ Child in the stable and continues until we observe the Baptism of the Lord next weekend. This season is the season of the Incarnation – the breaking-in of God into this world in the form of an infant, the Virgin’s Son. This is how God has chosen to work or salvation. The stories of Christmas all have to do with the world’s response that this amazing fact.
The shepherds hear the angels’ praises and were sent to the stable; they went forth and told everyone about their experience. Mary and Joseph pondered the beautiful gift of their Son in the peace of the Holy Family. Today, the wise men from the east follow the new star to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem to encounter the newborn king of the Jews; and King Herod shakes in fear as he perceives his power threatened and his familiar world changing.
Too often this can be our response to God’s action in our lives. We are comfortable – or we become comfortable – with the way our life is playing out. We know what to expect – for good and for bad – and we accept that reality. “This is the way,” we might tell ourselves. Like King Herod, we may be content to watch the “normal” passage of time and activity in our world and feel as though we have some sort of “control” over that world. After all, we are not made for chaos, right? We prefer order; be prefer the predicable.
But this feast of the Epiphany is going to shake us out of that – or, at least, it should. God’s action rarely follows our human logic or models. Now, the Messiah comes to us – not riding on a horse with power and influence; but meekly, weakly, humbly in a stable in a poor town that is not even His own. Yet, this is where the star will lead those who are open to following God’s will. At first, the wise men believe that their destination is the local seat of power: Jerusalem. However, they soon learn that this is not where they are being led. Rather, it is to a forgettable place that most people would pass over. And there they find the King, and they are transformed by their encounter with Jesus – so much so that they cannot return to their own homes by the same way that they came.
This is the wonder of the Epiphany – a word that means “to reveal” or “to make present to.” Here with the wise men and with Herod, we encounter what God is doing on the world and God is revealed to us. There in the manger, we encounter the Lord of Life and are asked for a response. Herod responds with suspicion and fear, worried about losing the familiar control over life that he has enjoyed. The wise men respond in faith, allowing their encounter to penetrate their souls and change them.
We too are asked for a response by this encounter. In this place, our temple where the newborn King comes to us, we are touched by the wondrous action of God and transformed if our faith allows us. Do we let God take control of our lives as he meets us here? Or are we still afraid? Do we prefer the familiar darkness of our sin and brokenness to control us, or are we willing to let Jesus take hold and reveal God’s new work in our life? Will we sit in content (and safe) silence as we watch God work, or will we go forth and tell the world about the new work that we are invited to share with Jesus?
As we welcome Jesus, consider the promise that we hear from Isaiah today: “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.” It’s the promise of the encounter with the Lord – of His “revelation”, or “epiphany.” We are overfilled by that meeting with Jesus, and we cannot help but to share what we have received.
This is what the Epiphany is about. Everyone who risked the visit to Bethlehem was changed; everyone who encountered Christ in the manger became a messenger of glad tidings – like the angels on Christmas night. We are invited to that same encounter here at this Mass, where we approach not a manger but another place where we are fed: the Altar. Jesus is here too; and when we encounter Him in Communion we are called to be transformed, like the shepherds, like the wise men, into heralds of the Gospel.