Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, which traditionally is the 12th day of Christmas, or January 6th. It has been said that Christmas made love visible. The feast of Epiphany tells us that the love that was made visible at Christmas is offered to every single person on earth.
The Gospel that the Church uses at Mass on this feast day is always the same, Matthew 2: 1-12. Even though this Gospel passage is very familiar to us, it is very rich and full of symbolism. Consequently, I find it difficult in selecting just a single topic to talk about.
I could talk about the word Epiphany itself and point out the fact that it is taken from the Greek word epiphaneia, which is literally translated as a showing, or a manifestation, or a revelation. For example, when a couple is married in the Church, at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, the priest or deacon has the couple turn around and face the congregation. As they do so, he says, “It is my privilege to introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” (eq) This is an Epiphany. It is the very first time that the newlyweds are officially announced and recognized as husband and wife.
Or I could talk about the Magi. The Magi were Median, or Kurdish pagan priests who rose to prominence in ancient Persia, or modern day Iran. Their religion was founded around the 6th century B.C. by a man named Zoroaster. These people were greatly respected and recognized as being highly educated scientists and scholars. It is very likely that these men were important individuals in their own country, and as such, probably of noble birth. This visit by the Magi is significant because it is the first official acknowledgement, or recognition, or announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the Divine Son of God; that God was made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. The Magi were heralds of this announcement. That is an extremely important detail because the Magi were not of the Jewish community. They were pagans. The Jewish leaders of the community were not present at that visitation. This event is important because it emphasizes the fact that God’s gift of salvation, in the person of Jesus, is offered to all people, not just the Jews.
Or I could talk about the Star of Bethlehem. We can never know for certain what it was that the Magi saw and were following, but several years ago I did some research on Astronomical History and was fascinated by what I found. For example, with the aid of modern day computers, astronomers can identify the paths of the stars and planets so accurately that they can tell you where these stars and planets were in the sky and where they were relative to each other on any specified time in history, even 2,000 years ago. And they can demonstrate what you would have seen from any point on the globe at any given day in history. I won’t go into all that detail again today, but astronomers have said that the astronomical activities of an 18 month period during 3 and 2 B.C. are the most remarkable, in terms of celestial events, in the last 3,000 years.
As I said earlier, we can never know for certain what it was that the Magi saw and what they were following, but I think it is remarkable. The movement of the planets and stars are very precise and their positions can be calculated with great accuracy. The astronomical data available to us through modern technology implies that what the Magi saw was most likely part of the natural order and, if it was part of the natural order, it would have taken the eye of a trained observer to recognize it. This would explain why it was only the Magi who were following the star.
God created the Universe. He not only knows the positions of all the heavenly bodies, He defined them, and He established them. Consequently, these celestial events of 2,000 years ago are not coincidental. They were intentional!
So if the position of the planets and stars in the sky 2,000 years ago weren’t magical or a special miracle or something outside of the natural order, then these events reveal something even more startling. Our God created a Universe in which the movement of the heavenly bodies is regular and predictable. This would imply then that from the very moment of creation, our God knew the moment of Christ’s birth. He marked it in the stars.
But for today, rather than my going into any great detail on any one of those things that I just mentioned, I am going to tell you a story. I am going to share this story with you because I think it summarizes the heart and soul of what the feast of Epiphany is all about.
This is a true story about a cab driver named Kent. “One night, about 20 years ago, Kent was dispatched to pick up a fare at a building on a dark deserted street. The building to which he was sent was also dark, except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, most drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away. But Kent had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. So Kent walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. There was a long pause then the door was opened by a small elderly woman. She was dressed in clothes that looked like they came out of a 1940’s movie. She had a small suitcase by her side. The apartment looked bare. All the furniture was covered with sheets. “Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. Kent took the suitcase to the cab then returned for the woman. She held his arm as they walked slowly to the curb, all the while thanking him for his kindness. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.” “Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said.
When they reached the cab, she gave him an address then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” he answered quickly. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice. I don’t have any family left. The doctor says I don’t have very long.” Kent quietly shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” he asked.
For the next two hours, they drove through the city. She showed him the building where she had once worked. They drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived. She had Kent pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she and her husband once danced. Occasionally she would ask him to stop in front of a building while she would just sit staring, saying nothing. Finally the elderly lady said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
They drove in silence to the address she had provided. It was a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as they pulled up. They obviously had been expecting her. Kent opened the trunk, removed the small suitcase then turned to the woman, who was already seated in a wheelchair. “How much do I owe you?” she asked. “Nothing,” was Kent’s reply. “You have to make a living,” she answered. Kent said, “There will be other passengers.” Then he bent down and gave her a hug. She held him tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.” He squeezed her hand then walked to his cab. The door of the convalescent home shut and Kent knew he heard the sound of the closing of a life. Kent left and drove aimlessly for hours, lost in thought. For the rest of that day, Kent could hardly talk. To Kent, this was one of the most important moments of his life.” (Make me an Instrument of Your Peace, Kent Nerbum, 1999)
We’re conditioned to think that Christmas is a time for shopping and gift giving. But the greatest gift that we can give is our love and compassion for another. The message of Epiphany is that God has offered us a priceless gift. This gift is freely granted to any who are willing to receive it. This gift is presented, not in the form of silver or gold, power or fame, but rather in the form of unconditional love and it is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. But there is a catch to this gift. Once you accept this gift of unconditional love, you are obligated to share it with others in your life. So when we leave our gathering here today, and return to the world outside these walls, may we carry God’s precious gift within our hearts, and share the unconditional love of Christ with those whom God has placed in our lives.