Epiphany: This word indicates the manifestation of the Lord, Who, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading (cf. Ephesians 3:6), makes Himself known to all nations … Yet if our God makes Himself known for everyone, it is even more surprising how He does so. … They will find Him, but not where they thought: not in the royal palace of Jerusalem, but in a humble abode in Bethlehem. We saw this paradox at Christmas. … Here is the surprise: God does not need the spotlights of the world to make Himself known.
-Pope Francis, sermon for the Feast of Epiphany,
These words from Pope Francis, spoken on the last major feast day of the Christmas Season, touch at the heart of Christianity. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says that the notion that the Almighty God would die on the Cross is, for non-believers, a “stumbling block” and “non-sense.” But St. Paul says that for us believers, it is “the power of God.” This same mentality applies to all aspects of the life of Christ. Why should one expect to see the all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal God in a baby born to a poor family in a small desertous region? Yet, it is in this self-emptying of God in the Incarnation, and later through the Cross, that the power of God unto salvation is made manifest. This is what is signified by the story of the Magi – true believers are those who see Jesus as more than a man, but as God made man.
With this in mind, the first reading has a lot of levels of meaning to it pertaining to this theme and its practical implications. The first reading is taken from Isaiah 60:1-6. It begins by saying:
Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. Though darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds, the peoples, upon you the Lord will dawn, and over you His glory will be seen. Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
The prophecies here from the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah were spoken at a time in which the people of Israel were going through a period of hardship. What the Prophet Isaiah is saying is that God’s mercy is coming upon them. Amidst the spiritual darkness of that time, the light of God will shine upon the people of Israel, and as a result of this the people of Israel will shine to the nations, who will honor Israel.
One level of symbolism is that the people of Israel represent Jesus. Just as Israel, once reconciled with God, was the vessel of the light of God’s glory on earth, so too was Jesus the vessel of the light of the glory of the Father on earth. The light of the Father shines through the Son, who, by literally entering into the created realm, shines the light of God within the darkness of human sin. Yet, the whole point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that the light of God not only shines in the darkness; it shines within the created realm in a manner that doesn’t, right off the bat, look any different than anything we see around us. Jesus didn’t look any different than other humans. There is no evidence that there was a visible, glowing circle or ring floating around His head; no sign that said, “I am the Messiah”; there was no direct perception of His Divinity. The Apostles saw brief glimpses of His true glory in events such as the Resurrection (and post-Resurrection appearances), the Ascension, and the Transfiguration. Yet, if the fullness of Jesus’ identity was perceived directly by all, then He would not have been rejected and killed.
Thus, Jesus is a light that shines in the darkness of human sin, but it is a light that can only be perceived by faith. And this makes more sense when we look at Isaiah’s prophesies in light of the Gospel reading. In the midst of physical darkness, the Magi were led to Jesus by the light of the star. The darkness represents the darkness of sin; the star represents God making Himself known to us, leading us to a knowledge of His Son, whereby God and man are reconciled, or it could represent faith, whereby we accept, assent to, or trust in God’s guidance. This parallels Isaiah 60:3 (“Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your drawing.”) – just as even the Gentiles, those outside of the covenant, are led to God by the light of Israel, likewise the Magi, who were themselves Gentiles, are led to Jesus by the light of a star, which represents how we are led to Jesus by faith and the enlightening of our mind’s and heart’s by God’s grace, and Christ Himself, once we turn to Him, reveals Himself to be the light of God manifesting itself to us in an intimate manner. Further, the Israelites were a small nation on the edges of the Middle East. Yet, just as even the kings of powerful nations are guided to God by the shining example of Israel, so too with the Magi, who were members of the nobility who came to pay homage to, firstly, a young child, and secondly, a young child who was far from being a member of the nobility or holding any other position of power. This would have looked strange to most people. But, what this signifies is that, no matter how powerful we are, are are reliant on God’s grace and saving power, as manifested in Christ, to truly be all that God is calling us to be. For anyone, particularly those who are well endowed on a natural level – the wealthy, the intelligent, those whose lives are, in many ways going good – to admit that they do not live satisfying lives because of these things, but because of their utter dependence on Christ, looks no different than kings paying homage or even outright worshiping the young son of a carpenter. Modern society tells us that we don’t need Jesus or religion, that the whole endeavor is nothing more than an elaborate superstition. For even the poor or the marginalized to have faith in Jesus is absurd to the mind of modern man; it is not for those whose eyes are enlightened by the light of faith.
Yet, there is another level of meaning. If we take the symbolism surrounding the people of Israel in a more human fashion, as a group of people united by a common faith, a common mission or a common heritage, the people of Israel represent the Church. In some cases, that which we say about Jesus is intimately bound with what we say about the Church. In the second reading, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, it is written,
Because of this, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles – if, as I suppose, you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, [namely, that] the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly earlier. (Ephesians 3:1-3)
Here, St. Paul describes himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles” – that is to say, he is one who has completely submitted Himself to Jesus, and one way of manifesting his complete submission to Jesus is by bringing others to Christ, and thus to salvation. He also describes himself as one given “the stewardship of God’s grace” – that is to say, a leader and guide of God’s people, by whose ministry people are opened to the grace of God. Jesus revealed Himself in an intimate way to St. Paul, thereby bringing about St. Paul’s conversion, and the inevitable result of this is that St. Paul is given the mission of converting others to Christ.
What has this to do with the larger message of Epiphany? Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, the ONLY thing that can counteract the darkness of sin. The telos, the raison d’être, of the Church is to serve as the vessel by which Jesus’ mission is continued and perpetuated. Israel could thus represent Christ; the people of the world walking by the light of Israel could represent how people are led to God only by the light of Christ. Yet, the people of Israel may also represent the people of God, which in the New Testament is the Church; the nations of the world walking by the light of Israel may represent how the Church has a mission to shine the light of Christ upon all people, to spread or promulgate it to all people and places. The mission of the Church is the same mission which St. Paul and the other Apostles had: “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God Who created all things…” (Ephesians 3:9)
We seem to live in a world where the darkness is closing in on the light. Many people in this country claim to believe in Jesus, and identify as Christians. Yet, study after study show that the number of people going to Church is dwindling; adherence to an orthodox, Bible-based understanding of Christian or Catholic teaching, or the acceptance of the fullness of Catholic teaching, is also dwindling. The Church is riddled with scandal and corruption. But, note how it seemed as if the light had been extinguished, the forces of evil were victorious, when Jesus died on the Cross; yet, this was, in fact, a victory, not for the forces of evil, but over them. This was the archetype of all that was to come. Corruption, scandal and controversy has always been a part of the Church, even in New Testament times (see Acts 4:35 and Acts 5:1-10; see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; 1 Corinthians 12-13; 1 Corinthians 6:1-11). The Church has also always been persecuted, also since New Testament times (Acts 7:54-60). Yet, no amount of corruption, no amount of persecution – no amount of evil – had been able to quench the Church. Jesus Himself said, “Remember that I have said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) Yet, Jesus Himself goes on to say, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you might have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) The light of Jesus that shines in the darkness is not merely a series of happy, fuzzy-sounding words that make us feel good. They are meant to bring peace, which is something more profoundly moving than merely happy emotions. What is the nature of this peace? It is hard to describe in a short space, but it is derived from the recognition that the light of Christ shines in the darkness. This does not mean that the darkness does not exist; what it means is that the darkness can never be more powerful than the light. And THIS is the meaning of Epiphany: by the eyes of faith, recognizing the light of Christ shining through in the darkness in victory over it.
- To read Pope Francis’ homily for Epiphany, see this link: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-01/pope-francis-epiphany-mass-homily-full-text.html
- To see the readings for Epiphany, see this link: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=106