This past week I was on retreat with the region bishops in Tucson, Arizona. One of the secondary blessings was the visibility and beauty of the stars. Is there anyone who does not enjoy gazing upon the stars? Even if only for a brief moment, the stars tend to stir one’s heart, and fill us with a sense of wonder and hope. Surely part of the reason for this strange phenomenon is that the stars naturally and powerfully lead us out of our self to something well beyond us. Hidden in this mysterious experience is a truth of the human person; our ultimate fulfillment is only to be found “beyond self”. In other words, we need others. We need God.
The beauty of this final Sunday of the Christmas season is that we see again how God in his goodness, comes to us, to fulfill this basic human need for wholeness, for holiness. Every individual is a part of this Epiphany event. As Epiphany Evening Prayer I says so well: “All peoples will be blessed in him [Christ], men and women of every race.” (Responsory) St. Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians teaches us today “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (Ephesians 3:2-6) The birth of Christ is the pivotal point of all history, and the reference point for all humanity, who seek Truth.
The mere presence and role of the star tells us this birth of Christ has cosmic, universal consequence. Imagine the genius of God, who created the heavens and the earth and all within them, most of all, each and every human person. Imagine that God “foresaw” from the beginning of time our need for a savior. When God set in motion the heavens and all their planets and stars and galaxies, He foresaw the moment in time when the Virgin would conceive a Son, and at this very moment in history, the heavens themselves would announce this event to those who were paying attention. Such is the generous providence of our God! This same astrological beauty and wonder continued for the next nine months, leading the magi to the place where the Virgin would give birth to the Savior of the world.
From crib to cross, these are the same heavens that would open on a few other occasions to “speak” on behalf of God to announce the glory of the Lord. On the night of his birth, the heavens opened to reveal to the shepherds “a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel praising God and singing: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 213-14) Such is the significance of this event for us, that the heavens could not contain their joy or the Good News!
At Jesus’ Baptism, marking the beginning of his public ministry, we recount the vision that opened before John the Baptist: and “on coming out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11) Similarly at the transfiguration of Jesus, his disciples witness: “a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17: 5) Finally, as we recall, the heavens became dark as Jesus hung upon the cross and gave up his life. (Mt 27: 45, Mk 15:33, Luke 23: 44)
These are rather significant announcements! And they reveal that our God has not put the world into motion, only to set back indifferently and allow things to unfold without a care on His part. No! Our God has come among us, with tremendous love, care and concern, as announced again today by the Psalmist: In the person of Jesus, our God comes “to govern with justice, and with judgment.” He comes “to bring peace till the moon be no more.” “He shall rescue the poor when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him. He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.” (Psalm 72)
So what does all this have to do with us? First and foremost, this Epiphany is our Epiphany. Christ who was born two millennia ago was born also for us! The light of the heavens and the light of the star which led the magi to the birth place in Bethlehem still call to us today to be led by the light of faith to the same Christ. As the heavens shined forth upon the birth of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah reminds us today that now, “the Lord shines upon us, and his glory appears over us! (Isaiah 60: 1-6) We have only to open our eyes and to open our hearts to receive these precious gifts of the Lord. Indeed, the Christian journey begins by receiving God in the person of Jesus. On this feast of Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the magi, and remember the gifts they brought the newborn King, we are invited to view this gift-giving in reverse, and see how God is the One giving gifts; the Gift of His Son, the Gift of Salvation, the Gift of Eternal Light and Life. We have only to receive Christ. Indeed, this “receiving” is absolutely necessary for the Christian. We are incomplete if we live a life closed in upon self. We are incomplete if we live life only for self, lacking love. We are incomplete until we receive the love of God, and learn to freely offer this love in all that we are and do. The scene before the magi is an instruction from God, Who gives Himself completely to us in His Son. Christ comes to us as the fullness of God, and fully human. He comes from God, and lives His life for God, and completely for others.
The Christian journey is a life of turning away from self (conversion), so as to live only and always for others, most especially, the Other, Jesus Christ! Once we have received Him as our most precious gift, then our life can be a continual response of making a gift of self to Him in our love for His Church and His people. Nationally, we dedicate this week as a week of praying for vocations. Surely, the Christian vocation is a life of service and love; a life lived for God, for His Church, and for God’s people.
Matthew’s Gospel today mentions twice that the magi offered homage and adoration to the Christ. (Mt 2: 2, 11) When we come to recognize the Truth, as did the magi, we, too, will spend more and more time in homage and adoration before the Lord. Such prayerful time in homage and adoration is required if we are to ever properly understand the depths of the love our God has shown us in Christ Jesus. Such understanding is necessary if we are to fully respond to this love. This is the vocation of each and every one of us; to open ourselves to this mysterious love, to receive it and to respond to it with all our heart, soul, and mind. This is to live a life fully human. This is to live a life leading to the Divine!