Sunday, January 3, 2016

Feast of the Epiphany

This feast of the Epiphany serves to extend our Christmas celebration even further as we focus on the kings or magi that came from the east to pay homage to the newborn Savior. On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate how wide-reaching God's promises are, that so early on in Jesus's life, he isn't restricted to just the Jewish nation but he is already made known to the world. This story of the wise men shows us people who accept Jesus and people who reject, and it's useful to examine both.

First, Herod, the one who rejects Jesus. Now, Herod seems to cause trouble for Jesus his whole life through, but it's not always the same Herod. There are actually four rulers named Herod throughout the New Testament, just to confuse us, and none of them liked Jesus or his followers. This Herod was a politician through and through. He knew how to play the game and he knew how to hold onto power. He put a ton of money into rebuilding the Temple even though he himself wasn't Jewish, so the Jewish authorities kind of owed him, that's why he could call the chief priests and the scribes together to find out where the Christ was to be born. But the more important thing to know about Herod is that he is incredibly protective of his power. One commentary called him "violently paranoid" about threats to his power, and another commentary even called it a "persecution complex." If he saw any real or imagined threat to his power, he eliminated it. A historian of the time (Flavius Josephus) tells us that he even killed half of his ten wives, several of his children, and many prominent people in the region because he thought he sensed threats to his power.

To Herod, God's promise, his gift, represents a threat, because Herod isn't willing to change. Jesus is a gift so great that he really only leaves us with two options. I can either conform my life to it or reject it. But I can't accept Jesus and not change my old life. So Herod is useful to us an example of what not to do with the mystery of Jesus, but overall he's not that interesting. He is the typical example of greed and selfishness that we see so often throughout history. But on the other hand, these mysterious magi provide absolutely fascinating figures for us to look at.

The story tell us that they came from the east, and when it says east, we don't want to think of China, we want to think of Iraq. Already that puts them beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. And they already seem to know about Jewish predictions of a Messiah. This is because there were Jewish communities spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, the Jews weren't restricted to just the Holy Land anymore. And wherever the Jews would go, they would certainly talk about their hopes for a Messiah, so it's not surprising that the magi would show up in Jerusalem already knowing about the king of the Jews.

They would have been astrologers, and at the time it was understood that the birth of significant people would be accompanied by the birth or rising of a new star. And what this guiding star was has fascinated people for centuries. Some say it was the intersection of two planets that was noticeably bright, some say it was a comet, some say it was an angel. I'm not worried about exactly what it was. What we want to notice is that God gave them a sign they could understand. They weren't Jews so they couldn't have understood an angel like the shepherds did, but they could understand a star. So God gave them a star, he spoke to them in a language they understood. But, and this is very important, that star didn't take them all the way to Jesus. St. John Chrysostom points out that they had to go to Jerusalem and consult with God's chosen people, the Jews, in order to find the newborn king. Chrysostom said, "The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all."

Chrysostom goes on to point out that God called these magi by the means they were most familiar, he called them out of their own lives and their own preoccupations to come encounter him. But in order to encounter him, they couldn't stay in their old lives. We see this throughout the gospels. Jesus called Peter and Andrew while they were fishing, he called Matthew while he was sitting at the tax collector's table, and he called Paul while he was on a mission of zealously persecuting Christians. Humorously, this suggests that Jesus isn't interested in keeping religion out of the workplace, but more seriously, we want to see that the magi, Peter, Andrew, Matthew, and Paul couldn't follow Jesus if they kept doing what they were doing before. In order to follow Jesus, they had to leave behind their old ways of living.

And the other thing that this story of the magi makes clear for us is that the gift of Jesus is for the whole world. These magi weren't Jews, yet they adored Jesus even before most of Judaism did. God the Father wants everyone to come to him by knowing and following his Son, Jesus thorough the Catholic Church. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. God wants all atheists to know and to follow Jesus through the Catholic Church. God wants every Protestant, every Jew. and every Muslim, even ISIS, to know and to follow Jesus. God is calling everyone the same way he called the magi. This gift of Jesus is for absolutely everybody, because God is not stingy with his blessings.

The magi brought their gifts to Jesus, yet really they were the ones receiving a gift in getting to adore this newborn king. And God wants this gift of Jesus to extend to the whole world precisely through the people who have experienced him, whom he calls to a new way of life. You and I, we try to offer our gifts of a humble will and attentive heart to the Lord, but in doing this, like the magi, we receive more than we give. And what we receive we have to pass on to others so that the gifts God gives may grow more and more. If we let ourselves be pulled by God from our old habits into a new way of life and do everything that entails: regularly participating in Mass and Confession, charity to the outcast, preaching his name to others, then the Epiphany of our Lord will indeed spread to the farthest corners of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment