On a Light in the Darkness
[Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12]
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord. In common parlance, an epiphany is a moment of sudden awakening. It’s a moment of clarity when a light shines in the darkness and we see something new.
The Feast of the Epiphany, however, is much more than that. It’s the celebration of the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah – God-made-man – and the visit of the Wise Men from the East is his first appearance to the Gentiles. It reveals that Jesus’ mission is not just to the Jewish people, but also to the whole world.
Pope Benedict says that these Magi represent a new beginning for humanity, as people start journeying towards Christ. This is a procession, he says, that has continued all through history. [i]
But, he adds, although ‘twenty centuries have passed since that mystery was revealed, it has not yet reached fulfilment, (for) an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning’. [ii]
God has always loved us (Ps.136), so how is it that Jesus’ mission is only just starting? Matthew’s Gospel today helps us to understand. It reveals that people tend to respond to Jesus in one of three ways – but sadly, only one is positive.
The first response is fear. When the Wise Men ask Herod where the infant King of the Jews might be, he feels threatened. The Romans then were at war with the Parthian Empire, and the previous king of Judea, Antigonus, was a Parthian ally. The Romans had him executed and had Herod replace him.
Herod knows that the Magi come from Parthia, and he fears for his throne. So he feigns interest in their search, but secretly he plans to kill Jesus. When the Magi fail to return, he has every infant boy in Bethlehem slaughtered (Mt.2:16).
This fear of Jesus and his message continues today. We see it in the Middle East, China and elsewhere, where intolerant regimes persecute Christians. We see it in some organisations and individuals, too. Whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of change or fear of the truth, they’re hostile towards Jesus.
The second response to Jesus is indifference, and we see this in the priests and scribes. When Herod asks where the infant king might be, they know it’s Bethlehem because they know their Scripture.
The Jewish people had been searching for the Messiah since Moses first prophesied his coming (Deut.18:15), and Micah even foretold where to find him (Mic.5:2). So why don’t these religious leaders go to Bethlehem themselves? After all, it’s only 9 km (6 miles) from Jerusalem.
It’s because they are too proud and too self-important to bother. Many people are like this today. They’ll only accept Jesus on their own terms. I once asked a young woman if she was Catholic. She replied, ‘Oh no. I don’t belong to any church. I won’t join any until I find one that agrees with everything I believe.’
Some people don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to change, even if it’s for the better.
The third response to Jesus is adoration. In ancient Israel shepherds were outcast because their work was dirty and Jewish society was obsessed with cleanliness. However, when they hear that the Saviour has come for all people, and not just for the few, they rush to welcome and adore him (Lk.2:1-20).
The Magi, too, adore Jesus. They traverse vast deserts and brave enemy lands to find him. As St. John Baptist de La Salle said, ‘They feared nothing, because the faith which inspired them… caused them to forget and even scorn all human considerations…’ [iii]
Like the shepherds, the Wise Men can see what Herod and the religious leaders cannot: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us (Lk.19:10; Mk.2:17; Is.49:16). They realise that to experience Jesus is to know God personally.
Martin Luther King Jr once said, ‘We may feel at times that we don’t need God, but then one day the storms of disappointment will begin to rage and if we don’t have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. This is why there’s so much frustration in the world.
‘We’re relying on gods rather than God. We’ve genuflected before the god of science, only to find that it has given the atomic bomb, producing fears that science can never mitigate. We’ve worshipped the god of pleasure, only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived. We’ve bowed before the god of money only to learn that in a world of possible depressions, money is a rather uncertain deity.
‘These transitory gods cannot save or bring happiness to the human heart,’ he said. ‘Only God is able. It’s faith in him that we must rediscover.’ [iv]
A light is shining in the darkness right now, and Jesus’ manifestation forces us to choose.
What is your response? Is it fear?
[i] Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Image: New York. 2012:89.