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Epiphany - January 7, 2018

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          A well-circulated Hasidic tale tells the story of a rabbi quizzing his students.  He asked, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”  One of the students suggested, “Day begins when, from a distance you can distinguish between and dog and a sheep.”  “No,” answered the rabbi.  Another student asked, “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” Again, the answer was, “No.” “Please tell us the answer then,” said the students.  “It is,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of other human beings and you have enough light in you to recognize them as your brothers and sisters.  Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us.

Today we celebrate Epiphany, the joyous realization that our God has manifested the good light of forgiveness and redemption in our world.  While we remember with gladness the One whose birth made the “Light” live and move among us, we also have to admit that the darkness of which the rabbi spoke continues to overshadow many of us and our communities.   

We see in the Gospel a great deal of human drama, with contrasts, irony and paradox.  Each piece of this drama speaks to us.  The rich splendor of Jerusalem stands in sharp contrast to the lowliness of Bethlehem, in which our Lord was born.  Herod’s jealousy, envy and feeling of being threatened by the new King stands in sharp contrast to the humility of the worshiping Magi from the East, the Gentiles they were.  Herod furthermore tries to annihilate the threat.  The people of Jerusalem, who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, are at best indifferent.  This Gospel is also about our lives, Karl Rahner suggested.  “When the light of Christ’s love calls us to conversion – be it to leave destructive behaviors or to forgive someone – it is sometimes easier to extinguish that light, like Herod tried to do, than to let it mold us.”  Perhaps we are like the Jews who can’t accept a Messiah coming as an infant.  We may know our need for a Messiah, but will only acknowledge his presence when He comes to us on our terms, not HIS.  Then there are the pagan Kings who put all they are and have into the journey to follow the star resting over God’s love wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Not only do they journey, but they bring gifts for the Newborn King. 

          The gifts given by these three wise men and astrologers tell us important things about Jesus’ mission.  The gold once again points to his kingly and divine mission; we call him, Christ the King – leader of the highest honor.  The frankincense, used in prayer, tells us that Jesus is God, worthy of being worshipped and prayed to.  And the burial spice myrrh tells us that he has come to die, and to die for US!  Each of these gifts is a preview of who this child is and will be.

          Like the Magi, we are called to God from far off places; we must struggle through our deserts of spiritual dryness and ask of others the way.  Like the Magi, we must make our way through indifference, hostility to the faith, and politics like those of Herod until we find the One we are to worship as Savior-King.  We journey through festive times of great joy and hope, through many, many mundane and uneventful days, and through misery, through virtuous times and through sinful failures, through love and through disillusion.  Although we know very well that God is the goal of our pilgrimage, the way to God sometimes seems all too far and all too difficult.  In grace, God wills truly to be the one who can REALLY be found, heart to heart.  And sometimes we forget how hard it is to see the obvious when it’s not in the usual place – like Christ the King being born in a barn in humble Bethlehem instead of splendid Jerusalem – or looking like the usual suspect – a vulnerable infant.  When we look with eyes of faith we see.  When we lose our vision, we lose our way!  Indeed, when we celebrate this feast of Epiphany, we are to recognize and realize its challenge: to be living reflections of the light of Christ for all people.  In every kindness offered us, our Lord is telling us, I love you.  In every kindness we offer others, he is telling them the same.  Like those of the Magi, our journeys are never easy!  But when we keep the eyes of our hearts and souls open, we will experience our own Epiphanies.  Our Lord wants us to see, to believe and to worship.  He wants us to give way to the parts of us which our like Herod who would stop at nothing to eliminate a potential rival for his throne, even defying the heavenly sign of the star that announces this new king.  He dispatches soldiers to kill every male infant in Jerusalem.  Jesus is Lord, and his coming will challenge every other loyalty we protect, every other agenda we assert different from doing God’s will.  We can react as Herod did, or, like the magi, who sought out this child to adore him.  And we can make the decision to manifest His love and light, or not to.