A woman named Jeanette was so stressed and overworked one Christmas she didn’t have time to reflect on the true meaning of the feast. She later explained, “We were so busy with the children, trying to make special clothes for them for the holidays, making presents, baking cookies, getting everything ready for the great celebration. With the children’s schedules, I did not have much time for myself, and before I knew it, Christmas had come and gone, and I had spent no time with Jesus. We got to Mass [on Christmas Day], and I can tell you I don’t even remember it. About a week later, close to the Epiphany, I was cantoring for Mass, and as I [was coming forward] to receive Communion [with the other choir members], I was thinking about receiving Jesus and holding Him in my heart. I happened to look at the [nativity] crèche in front of the altar, and I saw the back of Mary’s head. At that moment I heard a voice inside me say, ‘Would you like to see the baby?’ I was so moved that I started weeping, and I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ Then I stepped closer, looked over [Mary’s] shoulder, saw the Baby Jesus, and let Him come into my heart. I understood that [Our Lady] was helping me come see the Lord. I was not forgotten, even though I had forgotten to spend time with Him. I was so grateful that she opened my eyes to Him, that I could hear her sweet voice, for giving me an opportunity to have Christmas. I wasn’t too late” (Cheri Lomonte, Stories from Mary’s Touch, p. 11). This simple story reminds us in a charming way that Our Lord and Our Lady are very gracious and always willing to receive us—for indeed, part of the good news of the Christmas season is that it’s never too late to open our hearts to Jesus.
In the popular understanding of the Christmas story, the magi or wise men arrived to worship the Christ Child on the night of His birth shortly after the shepherds had departed—but in fact, a considerable length of time separated the two events. One legend suggests that the shepherds knew of a home in Bethlehem where the Holy Family might stay; the owner of the home, a righteous woman named Anne, was delighted at the presence of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and insisted they remain with her indefinitely. It was almost a year later that the magi arrived—and the Gospel passage from Matthew (2:1-12) specifically states that they entered the house where the Child was, not the stable. Even though the Child Jesus was now old enough to begin walking, the wise men were not late; through God’s providence, they arrived in time to worship Him and present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God’s plan unfolds gradually, and even if we weren’t a part of it at the beginning, as the shepherds were, we are still given an opportunity to play an important role. The reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (60:1-6) is not only a summons to rejoice in the light of the Lord, but also a promise that in the future other nations and peoples will also come to see and share in the glory of God. As St. Paul explains in his Letter to the Ephesians (3:2-3, 5-6), it was God’s plan that first the Jewish people, and then the Gentiles, receive the gift of salvation through Christ; again, this reminds us that, as long as our hearts are open, it is never too late to receive God’s grace.
What do people do when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, even though it’s still comfortably dark in the bedroom? Instead of flicking on the bright overhead ceiling light, they’re more likely to turn on a lamp with its softer light—possibly shielding their eyes as they do so, in order to give themselves a moment to adjust to the light. Likewise, if you go to see a movie on a bright, sunny day, when the film is over it’s not a good idea to use one of the theatre exits and step right outside; the sudden shift from darkness to light will be painful at first. No, it makes more sense to leave the theatre through the hallway and then the lobby, giving your eyes a chance to adjust. This same principle applies when it comes to stepping into the light of God’s grace. The Lord doesn’t want to overwhelm us; He reveals Himself to us gradually, and this process is meant to continue up until the very last instant of our lives on earth. The good news associated with this truth is that, even if we’ve gotten off to a very late start in answering the Lord’s call, it’s never too late; as long as we’re living, God is more than happy to give us another chance.
One of the unique characteristics that separates us human beings from God’s other creatures is our ability to experience regret. The angels in heaven have no reason to feel regret, and animals and lower forms of life are incapable of this emotion; we alone can feel sorry for what we did, or didn’t do, in the past. “If only I had told him or her how I really felt,” “If only I had tried harder,” “If only I hadn’t wasted that opportunity,” “If only I hadn’t acted stupidly without thinking,” or “If only I knew then what I know now”—these and similar words of self-recrimination are used by so many people all around us, each and every day. In terms of employment, education, finances, talents, and relationships, it is possible to make mistakes that can’t be undone—but it doesn’t have to be that way with God. Even if we’ve been ignoring Him or downplaying our relationship with Him for most of our lives, it’s never too late to repent, accept His merciful love, and begin living the life He intended from all eternity for us to lead.
The feast of the Epiphany is an invitation to step into the light of Christ—doing so, if necessary, in a gradual way, giving our eyes and our souls a chance to adjust, while allowing the Lord’s grace to transform us slowly but steadily. For example, if you’ve not yet made a new year’s resolution, perhaps you might choose something simple that will benefit your relationship with the Lord: promising yourself you will spend ten minutes a day reading the Bible, or that you’ll pray an extra rosary each week, or that you’ll attend a daily or evening Mass whenever possible, or any other good deed the Holy Spirit may be inspiring you to perform. None of us has to become a saint overnight, but all of us are called to make this our goal over the course of a lifetime. It’s certainly nice if, when God is doing something amazing, we happen to be in the neighborhood and can witness it from the beginning—as was the case with the shepherds when Jesus was born. However, most of the time we’re more like the magi: we have to make a long journey, we leave behind what’s familiar to us, we’re somewhat unsure of the direction, we occasionally trust the wrong people, and we show up after the main event. None of that matters as long as we do arrive—for one day we will leave behind the limits of time and space and enter into the light of eternity where everything is forever perfect, joyful, and new.