Have you ever heard a Catholic term that is familiar but one you have to really think about before you can remember what it means? Sometimes I still have to do that with the Epiphany, the Solemnity we celebrate today. I think it’s similar to the Immaculate Conception. Without thinking, you could say that the Immaculate Conception is about Jesus being conceived in the womb of our Blessed Mother. But, then when you think a minute you realize it is really about Mary being conceived without original sin in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. I think it is the same with the Epiphany; you have to think a moment about what it means.
The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation,” but if you don’t give it some thought, you could think that it refers to when Jesus showed his divinity to his closest apostles on Mt. Tabor… but, No, that’s his Transfiguration. Could it be when he performed his first public miracle by turning water into wine… No, that was the Wedding Feast at Cana. What about when God the Father announced Jesus as his Beloved Son at his Baptism in the Jordan River? No… that’s not it either! These were all manifestations but today’s celebration, the Epiphany, is about the Son of God being made known to the three wise men from the East. It can be confusing sometimes to understand what all of our feast days mean. But, there is indeed a clear message to all of us today.
First and foremost, we should know that our Gospel reading today does not merely describe a pious legend or some astronomical alignment, as some who try to rationalize the account would say. The story of the wise men from the East following a star to Bethlehem and Jesus is a narrative of fact. It was a miracle and it was real! The reality of the account, though fixed at a certain time in history, provides a wealth of inspiration and meaning for all mankind of all times.
Actually it is these three kings – or scientists of the stars, as they came to be known – who themselves represent all mankind. It was too these three non-Jews that Jesus, born to a faithful Jewish family, made himself known. And their journey is typical to all of those throughout history who have searched for Jesus to adore him. This is a source of great hope for us. To those of us who may not feel particularly close to Jesus – today is a new day. We can find hope in the fact that these three kings also made the journey and they have shown us how to make it.
Their journey was long, no doubt, and how do we suppose they explained it to their family and friends? I’m sure they were met with doubt and dismissal, maybe even ridicule. They had studied the stars; they knew how to follow this brightest star of them all. But it was by a special grace from God that they interpreted it as a sign of the presence of the long-awaited Messiah that they had heard about from their Hebrew neighbors. Inspired by this grace they sought him out in order to do him homage and adore him. It is just as the prophet Isaiah foretold, “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar”.
Often we too, by a special grace from God, yearn to be close to Jesus Christ and to adore him but it can sometimes seem like we are only coming “from afar.” Let us learn from the magi and be brave. Let us put the same certainty in our knowledge of heavenly things and in our faith that they did. Let us make the long journey with confidence that we will indeed find Jesus, and let us cast aside our love for approval or for material things that get in the way.
Upon finding Him, Isaiah said, “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow.” Indeed, St. Matthew tells us, the magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house [when] they saw the child with Mary his mother.” This joy is ours too. Many of you are doing well in your spiritual lives and remain close to Jesus. For you, this could be a day in which you take another step to be even closer to him or invite those who aren’t on the journey to take the first step.
When the magi finally made it to Jerusalem it seems from the tone of our Gospel reading that they got lost.
They “arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’… Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, [King Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea’” (Mt 2:1-5).
Along our way to Christ we too should be docile and willing to ask others for help:
Christ has given His Church sureness in doctrine and a flow of grace in the Sacraments. He has arranged things so that there will always be people [like our priests and bishops] to guide and lead us, to remind us constantly of our way… A conscientious Christian will go – with complete freedom – to the priest he knows to be a good shepherd, who can help him to look up again and see once more on high the Lord’s star.
In seeking Jesus myself and in trying to be a good shepherd, I have found it helpful to seek the guidance of my priest-spiritual-director at least once a month and to receive his absolution and counsel in the Sacrament of Confession. I also find much guidance in the advice of priest-friends, in the example of our Archbishop, and in the writings and speeches of our Holy Father.
With bravery and guidance we make our way to Jesus and when we find him we discover that all of the confusion we may have started with is replaced with simplicity and clarity. St. Matthew tells us that when the magi “saw the child with Mary his mother [t]hey prostrated themselves and did him homage.” They simply humbled themselves, lying flat before him, in adoration. All of the confusion of their long journey, following the star despite difficulties, seeking and following advice, and enduring Herod’s conniving demands gave way to simple adoration of our God-Made-Man.
This adoration is so clear that the Council of Trent in 1545 referred to our Gospel reading today when it described the devotion which is due to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus present in the tabernacle is the same Jesus the wise men found in Mary’s arms. As we grow closer to Jesus, one helpful reflection could be to examine ourselves to see how we adore him when he is exposed in the monstrance or hidden in the tabernacle. Do we even realize he is there, like the magi did? How can we grow in that awareness?
Many Catholics maintain their awareness by making the Sign of the Cross whenever they drive by a Catholic Church – acknowledging His Presence in the tabernacle there. Or they genuflect deliberately, with their eyes on the tabernacle, when they enter or exit their pew. Actions such as these help us to remain prostrate before the Lord, in our hearts, right beside the magi instead of remaining unaware or “from afar.”
Finally, let us not forget Mary. “The three Kings had their star [to lead them to Jesus]. We have Mary… [who was called by the early Church Fathers] Stella Maris, Stella Orientis, Star of the Sea, Star of the East.”