January 8, 2012
Matthew 2: 1-12
The Epiphany gospel is a continuation of the Christmas story in Matthew's prologue to his gospel (chapters 1-2). The prologue is a theological masterpiece in narrative form through which Matthew anticipates the major historical events he will present in his gospel to explain the significance of Jesus for us.
The names of Jesus are revealed: Messiah, King, Son of David, Son of Abraham, Emmanuel (God with us). As Son of Abraham, Jesus fulfills the divine promise that in Abraham's seed "all the nations of the earth would be blessed" (Gn 22: 18 and Mt 28: 10). The miracle of the virginal conception heralds the beginning of the climactic end-time of sacred history. The gentile nations as foretold by the prophet Isaiah come to the New Zion with their treasures to praise the Lord. Jesus will be rejected by many, will suffer persecution and death, but will ultimately triumph through the Father's providential care in the resurrection.
In today's gospel reading, Matthew tells us that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for the newborn king of the Jews so that they might do him homage. When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and asked the magi to bring him word of the child's whereabouts so that he too could pay him homage. When the magi found the child with Mary his mother, they did him homage and offered him their gifts. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
The good news of Epiphany is that Jesus is the revelation of God as one who offers himself to us in love. Jesus is the epiphany of the invisible God in all the events of his life: as a helpless child lying in a manger, as a young man dying on the cross -- the ultimate revelation that God's glory is love. This feast reminds us that each Sunday's liturgy with its gospel reading is an epiphany of the Lord to be reflected upon in the quiet of faith.
As in every offering of love, the Lord awaits the response of our heart. Will it be that of Herod who perceives it as a threat to his own autonomy and power? Will it be that of the magi who perceive this offering of love as the fulfillment of the human quest? Epiphany is the revelation of the purpose of the Incarnation: that God and we, God's creatures, might enjoy each other in the embrace of love. Who could be afraid of a God like that?
The church anticipates the good news that the mutual exchange of divine and human love is the deepest meaning of the Incarnation by giving us a reading from the Song of Songs at an Advent Mass a few days before Christmas. This "greatest of songs" is a love poem describing the wonder and excitement of the divine-human exchange of love in beautiful erotic images. The poem can help us realize a bit of the astonishing mystery we celebrate. The Lord says to each of us: "Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come" (Song 2: 10). One is also reminded of Christina Rossetti's lovely epiphany poem "In the Bleak Mid-Winter."
What can I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring him a lamb;
If I were a wise man I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him Give my heart.
The epiphany of the Lord is actualized in every celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus reveals himself and identifies himself as the bread of life. One could not imagine a more powerful sacrament or symbol to reveal that the ultimate meaning of Jesus is to give himself to us in love. Bread has no meaning by existing for itself. Bread exists in order to give life to those who receive it as food. The prayer after communion for the Mass of Epiphany expresses this mystery of faith: "Help us to recognize Christ in this Eucharist and welcome him with love."
Campion P. Gavaler, OSB