I think many of you have heard of the book: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” The author talked about differences between men and women. I especially remember that he talked about differences in the way men and women communicate – not just how they communicate, but why they communicate. When I read that part, I remember telling my wife: “I’ve just had an epiphany!” There was something about the author’s ideas that immediately made sense to me. I suddenly understood something about the different ways that Laura and I communicated – and it’s helped me to communicate better with her – well, most of the time.
When I used the term “epiphany,” I was using it in the secular sense, not in the religious sense. In the secular sense, an epiphany is a sudden understanding of the meaning of something, usually something important. The Epiphany of the Lord that we celebrate here today is a little bit different. The word “Epiphany” comes from Greek words that mean “to manifest,” or “to show.” And in the early Church, this celebration had been linked to Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana, as well as the visitation of the Magi (as we celebrate today). In each of these events, Jesus was manifested to the world. And for people who were able to understand, each of these events would have been an epiphany – in both senses of the word. The events would have shown or manifested Jesus, the Son of God, to the people, and those who were able to recognize this would have had an immediate understanding of something very new and different – they would have realized that this was the long-awaited Messiah.
It must have been difficult for the Magi to fully understand the significance of the Epiphany. Because they were not Jews, they would not have grown up with the expectation of a Messiah. And yet, we heard in the Gospel that: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” They weren’t honoring the adult Jesus who was a gifted teacher and a miracle-worker – they were honoring an infant. But in doing this, the Magi were clearly having an epiphany of their own – a sudden and profound realization of an important truth. This was no ordinary child.
It’s interesting to compare the response of the Magi to the response of Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes – these were the political and religious leaders of the time. The Gospel tells us that they were frightened. They were probably worried about losing their positions of authority and status.
How do you react to the Epiphany – the manifestation of the Son of God, born as a human person? Is your reaction like the Magi who immediately knelt down before the child? Or are you threatened like Herod and the Pharisees? I’m not suggesting that the Epiphany will threaten our positions of authority and status (if we have them), but it can, and should, make us question many things about our lives, and that can be very threatening. How can we continue to be motivated by selfishness and greed when Jesus was first shown to the world in such humble circumstances? How can we worry about our position or status when our Saviour spent his first night as a human person in a manger – a place meant to hold animal food?
The Epiphany of the Lord should cause each of us to have our own epiphany. I told you that when I read that book about communication between males and females, something immediately made sense to me – it changed the way I saw things and how I acted. Well, the way that the Son of God was shown to the world should have the same effect. We should be able to look at it and see things in a different way – a way that makes new and perfect sense to us. It should challenge us to see our lives through different lenses – and question the things that we think are important.
And if our individual epiphanies bring us new understandings, we shouldn’t feel guilty about the person we are or the person that we have been. I think Father Paul said once that Catholics didn’t invent guilt, we just perfected it. But the Epiphany and our reaction to it should not be about guilt, but joy. Jesus – the creator of the world – came to earth as a human person in humble circumstances. He was shown to wealthy and educated Magi, and to poor, uneducated shepherds. If these events make us realize that we need to change our lives in some way, that’s no cause for guilt – we should rejoice that our salvation is possible, in spite of our faults. So instead of wallowing in the guilt of past mistakes, we can look forward to something new – different – better.
We heard that the Magi knelt and offered the baby Jesus homage and gifts – but they did something else – they protected him. Remember that Herod wanted the Magi to tell him where Jesus was, so that he could harm or even kill him. The Magi returned to their country by another road to protect Jesus. Maybe that should be part of our response to the Epiphany – to try to protect Jesus.
But how would we do that? How can we protect Jesus? In the Gospel, we see Jesus as an infant – poor and powerless. In the same way, we see Jesus today in the poor and the powerless. As a parish, we are currently sponsoring 50 poor, young children at a school and 35 more at an orphanage in Jamaica. We are also giving $500 a month to run a food bank at our sister parish in Jamaica. We will see in the bulletin soon that our Jamaica fundraiser brought in more than $12,000 to support projects that we’ll be undertaking in Jamaica this spring. Surely, this is a way that we, as a parish, are protecting Jesus.
We also see the poor and powerless in our schools and workplaces. Standing up for someone who is treated unfairly at work is a way of protecting Jesus. Helping a student who’s been victimized by a bully at school is a way of protecting Jesus. Taking the car keys from a friend who’s had too much to drink is a way of protecting Jesus. There are many more examples that you can think of. The poor and powerless are all around. But understand that these actions are ways of responding to the Epiphany not out of guilt or a sense of duty, but out of joy.
A few days ago, we celebrated Christmas – the most amazing event in the history of the world; God became a human person. Today the child Jesus was shown to the world. The different reactions of the Magi and the political and religious leaders were a preview of the kinds of responses he would receive throughout his life on earth. And this mix of responses mirrors the kinds of reactions that we can have to the manifestations of Jesus in our lives. In the Epiphany, we celebrate the act of Jesus being shown to the world. Well, he’s still here, and we see his face especially in the faces of those in greatest need. I pray that when you see his face, you will respond – not from guilt, not from a sense of duty – but from joy. In short, I pray that each of you has your own “epiphany.”