One of many “calendar mistakes” in the post-conciliar reform was the suppression of Epiphanytide, subsuming two of the “epiphanies” into Christmastide and leaving the third out almost completely.
As you undoubtedly know, “epiphany” comes into English through the Greek word for a “revelation” or “manifestation.” Traditionally, the three epiphanies on which we focus at this time of year are the Infant King’s manifestation to the Magi; the manifestation of Christ as the Father’s beloved Son at His baptism; and the manifestation of His glory in the working of His first sign at the wedding feast of Cana. By way of a sneak preview, let’s take a look at each of these ever so briefly. We can be aided in this exercise by having recourse to the lovely Epiphany carol, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.”
The first verse introduces us to the epiphany we recall on January 6:
Songs of thankfulness and praise,
Jesus, Lord, to Thee we raise,
Manifested by the star
To the sages from afar,
Branch of royal David’s stem,
In Thy birth at Bethlehem.
Anthems be to Thee addressed
God in man made manifest.
This solemnity has traditionally been observed as the day of the Lord’s self-revelation to the Gentiles. Every major character on Christmas Day was a Jew, except for the angels, of course. All of this feast’s Scripture readings point to the non-Jewish nature of this celebration as we Gentiles have our day in the person of the Magi. The result is that Jews and Gentiles alike are co-heirs, joint members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and equal sharers in the promise. In other words, the divisions within the human race are eradicated in and through this Child born from within the Chosen people and then given to the whole world.
However, there is another angle from which to consider the Wise Men, not simply as our spiritual ancestors in being Gentiles but as our spiritual ancestors in that they were men searching for answers to the mysteries of life, what St. Paul would later call “God’s secret plan” (Eph 3:9). As educated people, they had access to forms of wisdom and knowledge which the poor shepherds did not, but they were still dissatisfied. Can we not see modern man in them?
G. K. Chesterton made the connections very clear and strong: “Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore on tortured puzzles from our youth, We know all labyrinthine lore, We are the three wise men of yore, And we know all things but the truth.” “We know all things but the truth” – how sad but how reflective of so many in the world we inhabit. Chesterton has the Magi continue: “We have gone round and round the hill And lost the wood among the trees, And learnt long names for every ill, And served the mad gods, naming still the Furies the Eumenides.” In other words, with all our so-called progress, we’re no better off than our forefathers who worshiped the fire or the sun. Practically speaking, the differences are hard to find.
The old cigarette commercial used to declare, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” which was meant to highlight the importance of a good smoke for a truly committed smoker. With no pun intended, we can look upon the Magi today and realize that they rode on camels for hundreds or even thousands of miles looking for answers. Ours is an age of searchers, too. People seek out cheap highs and find themselves dead or addicted for life. People look for pleasure in the abuse of drugs and sex and discover they have AIDS. People want the joy of sex without the responsibility of parenthood and come to learn that their birth control pills have given them cancer. People try to manipulate nature and wake up to find they have created monsters. Am I saying that God punishes these seekers with physical or even lethal problems? No, ours is not a vengeful God; this is just how life works when man refuses to accept the answers God gives him. The Magi were truly open to answers and so finally found the Answer. And as the old coffee commercial put it, they heard a voice say, “Stop, pilgrim, your search is ended.” And they knew it – and changed their lives.
Another seeker is mentioned in the Gospel of the day – one we cannot afford to dismiss too quickly because his breed is not dead and is, in fact, very much alive today. That individual is Herod. He was genuinely interested in the Christ Child, but for all the wrong reasons, and he comes to us in two different but related guises today.
Firstly, we encounter him in civil rulers who have some appreciation for the Church’s social work but who wish to muzzle her proclamation of the Gospel. Like Herod, in their paranoia, they are threatened by the truth. And so, they engage in strong-arm tactics to restrict our religious freedom in their attempt to silence the truth. They need to learn a lesson from all the Herods of history: Herod and his ilk are remembered as madmen; the Church not only survives but thrives!
Secondly, Herod has spiritual descendants in the Church itself among those who want a Christ and a Church which pose no threat to their “normal” lifestyle. They will not listen to a Church which says: “Be generous to the poor. Be peacemakers and not war-mongers. Save sex for marriage. Be open to and accepting of human life. Be different from the pagans of the world.” Like Herod, when they find Christ (this time not in the stable of Bethlehem but in His Church), all they will do is kill Him – at least the real Christ. They want a Savior Who makes them feel good without really being good, and that is just impossible.
The Wise Men had learned that from long and painful personal experience. Like so many today, they had tried everything and discovered the shallowness, the absurdity, and even the destructiveness of it all. That is the kind of wisdom we need. As sages, they still desire to teach us centuries later, and they can, if we are willing to learn. The carol tells us the Magi prayed to a star; we might well pray to them in the same words: “Guide us to the perfect Light,” to the One Who is “Light from Light,” the “Light which enlightens every man who comes into the world” (Jn 1:9).
“God in man made manifest.”
The second “epiphany” occurs at the Lord’s baptism. Our hymn would have us sing of that revelation, along with the third:
Manifest at Jordan’s stream,
Prophet, Priest, and King supreme,
And at Cana, Wedding-guest,
In Thy Godhead manifest;
Manifest in power divine,
Changing water into wine.
Anthems be to Thee addressed
God in man made manifest.
My first experience of witnessing a baptism took place when I was in the third grade. I attended a large parish grammar school in Newark, New Jersey, in a neighborhood which was just beginning to attract blacks, most of whom were not Catholic. However, a good number of those people recognized our schools as superior and asked to have their children admitted. In the third grade, one of our classmates and his entire family were received into the Church. Ronald was baptized during the school day so that all his classmates could attend. Immediately after the water was poured over his forehead, he blurted out in his still-fresh-from-the-South accent, “Ah feel bettah ahlready!”
Naturally, such a response brought out explosive laughter from all of us. And also, naturally, Sister Vera explained to us back in the classroom that although Ronald’s acclamation was a little out of place, he surely did have the right idea.
The baptism of Jesus is given to us as an opportunity to reflect on our own baptism which, in most cases, took place many years ago and was also probably done for us by our parents and godparents. What did baptism do for you?
If you were baptized as an infant, the Church made a powerful statement of God’s love for you by bringing you into a relationship of love with God long before you could even begin to return that love. Original sin was removed, and you were accepted into the family of God, which is His Church. That first and most basic sacrament made you a Christian, a little Christ – called to share in Christ’s three-fold mission as priest, prophet, and king.
Some people have the mistaken notion that the very fact that at some past moment they were baptized provides an automatic guarantee of salvation. A passage from the Acts of the Apostles should make them pause as they hear Peter remind his hearers that “God shows no partiality” (10:34). Being a Jew or a Gentile means nothing in itself; just as being a a Christian in itself means nothing. What matters is that a person “fear God and act uprightly” (10:35). In other words, if we wish to claim that we belong to the company of the saved, we must act like saved people.
How does one act “saved”? By doing God’s will in one’s life, by living as a member of the community of the Church – faithful to one’s baptismal promises – by worshiping God with the entire Christian community, by performing works of mercy, by “healing those in the grip of the devil” (10:38), that is, by challenging our pagan culture through the faithful witness of our lives to conform to the ways of Christ and His Gospel.
Sixty years ago, that classmate of mine asserted that he “felt better already.” I have often wondered how he lived out that first profession of faith in the power of the sacrament he had just received. By living out our baptism to the full and wholeheartedly, salvation becomes a real and daily experience, bringing peace and fulfillment in this life and the assurance that we will hear at the end of our lives, the same message Jesus heard from the Father at the outset of His public ministry: “You are my beloved son or daughter. On you my favor rests” (Mk 1:11).
When Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to France in 1980, he addressed the nation as “France, eldest daughter of the Church.” Surely, that historic title for the first country to embrace the Catholic Faith made many Frenchmen swell with pride. He then finished the sentence, “What have you done with your baptism?” Many French heads sank into their chests as the Pope not too subtly reminded them of the massive abandonment of Christian values in that country. That same question could be posed to most of the formerly Christian West, including our own nation: Indeed, people of Holy Innocents Parish, what have you done with your baptism?
It might be a good idea between now and the feast of the Lord’s baptism to reflect on and renew your baptismal promises, making a firm commitment to live in total fidelity to them as a grateful response to the grace first given you on that life-changing day of your baptism.
“God in man made manifest”
During one of my jaunts to Europe as a pilgrimage group chaplain, I had the pleasure of staying in a delightful hotel in Florence. In the hotel’s lounge a piano player entertained his audience with American show tunes, to which my group and I responded by foot-tapping and some low humming or singing, which the pianist noticed. As a result, he invited me up to the stage to do my “nightclub act” for the whole audience. I obliged and ended up performing for two nights!
On the second night, a group of British touristers was present – all quite proper and very reserved. As I finished for the evening, one lady – obviously shocked to see a priest doing such a thing – blurted out for me to hear: “Those Roman Catholics have no clahss!” To which I replied, “Madam, Our Lord loved parties. In fact, His first miracle was performed to keep a party going longer.” She had no reply. If I were totally honest, however, I would have to admit that the Cana Gospel is far more than a story that says that Jesus enjoyed parties.
In the calendar of the Ordinary Form, we hear of this event only in Cycle C (which is the case this year) on what is really the first Sunday in what the Church in the United States refers to as “ordinary time” – the “green season” when no spectacular feasts will occur; more accurately, this season is termed “per annum” (throughout the year) in Latin. At any rate, notice: She begins ordinary time with an extraordinary event – Jesus’ first sign showing Him to be the Christ and likewise showing the coming of God’s Kingdom among men.
The Gospel of John has been called the Gospel of the New Creation. If you were to study it closely, you would know why: It opens with the words, “In the beginning,” reminiscent of the Book of Genesis; the Evangelist presents Jesus working signs for the first six days of His public ministry, closely paralleling God’s work at the dawn of time; further, each of the seven signs builds in importance until we reach that last sign – the Lord’s own Resurrection when the damage of Eden is undone once and for all, death being destroyed in an eternal Easter.
The point that John would have us take from all this is that in and through Christ, God’s Kingdom has come crashing into our lives with its power to save. However, this is accomplished frequently through very ordinary things, and so we need to look beneath the surface to see a deeper reality. And so, we can ask: Was Jesus just working a cheap magician’s trick to gain attention, or was something more here for our consideration?
The Jewish people, in their long centuries of waiting for the Messiah, had come up with a rather detailed job description for such a person. One of his tasks was to be the agent of God’s Kingdom in which poverty, sickness, death and sin would be replaced by plenty, wholeness, life and grace. The prophets often spoke of the Kingdom as a great wedding feast given in honor of the marriage of God and His people, at which rich foods and choice wines would abound. Against this background, wine for water becomes very understandable. Of course, Christians reading this Gospel in 100 A.D. would also automatically think about another feast and another substitution, namely, the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, whereby Christ’s Death brings us life as bread and wine are changed into His Body and Blood. And once again, it is necessary to look beneath the surface to see the deeper reality – to see with the eyes of faith, so that, like the disciples, we may behold His glory and believe in Him (cf. Jn 2:11)..
On these “green Sundays,” we celebrate the redemption of time as we realize that in God’s scheme of salvation history, there is really no such thing as “ordinary time,” for all time is His gift to us designed to bring us to the extraordinary time and place we call Heaven. Catholic and Orthodox theology holds that we gain glimpses of eternity in time, that God gives us clues as to what we can expect, that Heaven can actually begin on earth, and that this happens most often and most assuredly when the faithful on Earth gather to share in Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice – this one, all-sufficient event which gained for us a place in the Heavenly Kingdom.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that I was right in my remarks to that British lady, after all: God does love parties – and on a grand scale! At the risk of sounding mildly irreverent, we could say that Jesus was God’s answer to Pearl Mesta, and that He has prepared one Heaven of a feast for those who have the faith to see His signs and to believe.
“God in man made manifest.”
And, oh, I forgot to mention, there is actually a fourth “epiphany” we await. Once more, our hymn helps us:
Sun and moon shall darkened be,
Stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee;
Christ will then like lightning shine,
All will see His glorious sign;
All will then the trumpet hear,
All will see the Judge appear;
Thou by all wilt be confessed,
God in man made manifest.
Every “epiphany,” “revelation,” “manifestation” is intended to prepare us for that great and final “epiphany” when Christ comes again in glory. The Nicene Creed we profess every Sunday reminds us of this truth of our faith: “. . . venturus est cum gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos” (He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead). May we so enter into all the manifestations of Christ that we anticipate His final coming, not with fear but with eager longing.
(Note: This was homily preached originally on January 3, 2019, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.)
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