We have just awoken bleary-eyed in the year of salvation 2011 and already we have had to celebrate the great and ancient feast of Epiphany. The 12 days of Christmas have this year become 8, at least in England and Wales. The logic of such tinkering with the calendar is truly beyond me. It pleases no one and upsets precisely those people who would have gone to Mass both on the Sunday and the true day of Epiphany, 6 January. As with the transfer of the feast of the Ascension also to the nearest Sunday, a symbolic and traditional numbering of days has been destroyed. Moreover, as one of our parishioners, a working mother, pointed out, good Catholics (and not so good ones!) are deprived of the graces to be received from making the effort to go to Mass on the Epiphany in the face of inconvenience. Those who value the Church’s feasts, and its worship, will make the effort; those who do not value them will not. Why must that latter group be catered to in such an unsettling way?
Yet we must play the hand we are dealt, and today in England and Wales was the feast of the Epiphany (which comes from the Greek, and means ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’). The feast is an ancient one, and the earliest reference to it found so far is in the middle of the 4th century, though the context allows us to assume that it was well established by that time. In the eastern churches Epiphany commemorates our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan, when Christ was manifested as God’s Son and Messiah (Matthew 3:13-17). From the point of view of St John’s Gospel which does not deal with anything in the life of Christ before the ministry of John the Baptist, Christ “manifested his glory” at his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-11), and so this too came to be associated with Epiphany.
The Catholic Church gives Christ’s Baptism its own feast, and in its celebration of the Epiphany focuses on the visit to the infant Jesus by the Magi, the wise men whose relics I recently visited in the great cathedral of Cologne. The Church sees in this event what St Matthew (2:1-12) clearly intended of it, an example of the failure of the leaders of the Jewish nation and religion to recognise their Messiah – recognition comes instead from simple and powerless Jewish shepherds at his birth, and 12 days later, from gentiles represented in the persons of the Magi. It seems almost as if St John was commenting on this event when he wrote of Christ coming to his own and his own not receiving him (John 1:11-12). Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are resonant with symbolism: gold fit for a king in the line of David, frankincense for the worship of God in Christ, and myrrh fit to embalm this king for a tomb that would not hold him long. In the visit of the Magi we see that Christ is recognised by the gentiles as Messiah King, as God, and as the Crucified One, whose redemption will not be just for the Jewish people from which he sprung, but for the whole world.
My purpose, however, is not to give a full treatment of the feast (see here or here if you would like to read more). Instead, a brief reflection follows, inspired by the words of our Fr Gervase who celebrated the Mass for Epiphany in our abbey church (at which Theresa was received into full communion with the Church – ad multos annos!). He ended his homily with reference to the final words of the gospel regarding the Magi, which he said were addressed to us and there left us hanging:
And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Now I will confess that until now I had not seen in these words any more than that the Magi wished to avoid Herod now that they knew both where the new-born king was and what Herod intended to do to him. But, as so often in the gospels, there can be a deeper additional significance, and Fr Gervase’s words prompted me to think on it.
To encounter Christ, and to be open to that encounter, is to be changed. An encounter with Christ is an encounter with the highest expression of the loving mercy of God, indeed its personification: Emmanuel, God-with-us. It guides us into another way of living, another path through life. The destination is truly our “own country”, heaven, for as St Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:20), “our citizenship is in heaven”. It is a path, a way of life, that involves actively avoiding evil, just as the Magi deliberately avoided the evil heart of Herod. In the New Testament we are often exhorted to avoid those who live sinful and evil lives. This is not out of self-righteousness. We seek them out if we have sound hope to convert them; otherwise we are to avoid them lest their ways corrupt us.
A passive, indifferent approach to living in this world is not good enough for the Christian. The Christian must incline to good, and decline from evil. Both involve decision, action, courage and perseverance. Some will be called to go into the midst of more hopelessly sinful humanity to bring them the light we see manifested in Christ; others rather stay at home, as it were, maintaining and building up the household of God from which are sent those who bear God’s light to the world. Naturally the latter also bear witness to the light in their lives of service, just as the former also build up the Church by bringing more people into the household of God. Nevertheless, both are needed.
So maybe this new year we might seek the patronage of the Magi, that with the help of their prayers, we might spurn what is evil and embrace what is truly good, that others perhaps far from God might see shining in and through us God’s healing light in the midst of their darkness, and so be guided to their true home in the kingdom of heaven.