Claire and I were on holiday in England at the end of December and we celebrated Christmas in a small town called Weybridge in Surrey. It is the tradition in the Weybridge parish of Christ, the Prince of Peace (as it it at St Michael’s), at the Christmas midnight Mass, to carry the figure of the infant Jesus in solemn procession from the sacristy, through the church and place it gently in the straw in the manger on the one side of the sanctuary after which everyone knees in quite prayer reflecting on the Nativity of the Lord.
This year the figure of Jesus was replaced with a baby boy born just a few days earlier. The impact of having a real infant in the crib was quite startling. Instead of finding oneself in prayer in a safe place of contented peace while contemplating the crib, there were all sorts of questions and human concerns.
Will the baby cry? And what will the parents do if he does? Will the noise in the church disturb him or frighten him?
Is he warm enough? When was he last fed? What if he needs to be changed?
Mary and Joseph would have been asking themselves very similar questions.
Very quickly the romantic, idealistic picture of a blissfully contented baby Jesus surrounded by adoring parents, shepherds and animals was displaced with the harsh realities of the helplessness of a baby and the anxieties of new parents.
At Christmas, God who has created everything, knows everything and loves everything lies absolutely helpless in the arms of his young, inexperienced mother and says to us: love me!
In celebrating the Epiphany we need to feel and experience in the very depths of our being, the reality of Jesus, born to Mary at Christmas. Jesus revealed to the world at the Epiphany as the Christ.
Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian feasts and originally celebrated four different events:
the birth of Jesus when the angels bear witness to Christ, and the shepherds, representing the people of Israel, bow down before Him; the Baptism of the Lord when the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God the Father is heard, declaring that Jesus is His Son; Christ’s first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana that reveals Christ’s divinity; and the visitation of the Wise Men or Magi when Christ’s divinity is revealed to the Gentiles—the non-Jewish people; the Wise Men representing all the other nations of the world.
Each of these is a revelation to mankind of God, in the person of Jesus. That’s what Epiphany means: pulling back the veil, the ‘shining forth’ or revelation that Jesus is the Christ.
The Biblical Wise Men who were not Jewish paid homage to the infant Jesus in stark contrast to King Herod who was the king of the Jewish people.
Saint John Chrysostom, saw great significance in the meeting between the Magi and Herod writing in the 4th century:
“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.”
The earliest reference we have to Epiphany being celebrated on 6 January is in the surviving books of a historian named Ammianus Marcellinus dated AD 361. Ammianus was a professional soldier who served in the army of the Emperor until he settled in Rome where he wrote a history of the Roman Empire as he saw it during his lifetime.
Although Christianity by that time was no longer outlawed in the Roman Empire, Ammianus was not a Christian convert
and in his writing was very critical of the behaviour of the Christians; but he was not opposed to the teachings of Christianity.
I fear that criticism is as valid today as it was then. That while many profess to be Christian, the behaviour, lifestyles, life choices and values of many Christians, stand in strong contrast and contradiction to the faith that they confess.
A question we could be asking ourselves on this feast day:
If non-Christians, perhaps from the East or elsewhere, came searching for God, would they recognise and find Christ in us? Are we the reflection, the revelation, of Jesus to the world? And if not, what do we have to change in our lives that the faith that we profess with our mouths, may be evident, attractive and appealing in our behaviour?
This is traditionally a time of new resolution; a time to make changes to better our lives, our relationships and our spirituality. We could start by simply reflecting on the three gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men from the East.
Gold is the gift for a king.
We do well to remember that Jesus is King. While in our personal relationship with Jesus we may feel very close and intimate, we can never be on equal terms. We need always to submit to his supreme authority. When we see ourselves on equal terms with Christ we risk creating him in our own feeble image; perhaps as a means to feel better about our weaknesses, temptations and sins. Jesus is not our big brother; he’s our King who loves us unconditionally notwithstanding our many failings.
Frankincense is the gift for a priest.
The function of a priest is to open the way, to build a bridge, between God and mankind. That is what Jesus did; he opened the way to God. Through our baptism we share in the priesthood of Christ. We have been anointed to be bridge-builders between heaven and earth. How strong is that bridge? And do our lives inspire trust that people seeking God will see in us, the bridge to eternal happiness?
Myrrh is the gift of one who is to die.
Jesus came into the world to live for us, and in the end to die for us. As disciples we are called to live for Christ and to die to be with Christ. This pilgrimage will for each of us one day by over; sooner or later. Not one of us knows with any certainty whether we’ll ever again celebrate Christmas, a New Year or the Feast of Epiphany.
The very best resolution we can make for the year ahead, is it to prepare better for our dying through the Christ-inspired model of our living.