Delivered by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in St. Thomas More Church, Manalapan, Jan. 7, 2018
In the Book of Genesis, the sacred author tells us that on the fourth day of creation God said:
Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the seasons, the days and the years, and serve as lights in the dome of the sky, to illuminate the earth. And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night, and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to illuminate the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good (Genesis 1: 14-18).
Since the time of creation, human beings have been fascinated with stars not only because of their mysterious beauty in the night sky but also because the presence and activities of the stars were given meaning by their observers, identifying things that have happened, are happening or will/might happen. The stars were used as guides on land and sea, a natural compass in the heavens giving direction. The stars were also considered an inspiration to romance and the movements of the human heart.
When Genesis says that God intended stars “to illuminate the earth,” that idea can be taken both literally and symbolically. The Feast that the Catholic Church celebrates today is an example of that.
The account of the Epiphany told in St. Matthew’s Gospel this morning continues the Christmas story for us. Central to the story is a star that literally shines in the eastern sky but that also symbolizes the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you” we hear in our first reading from Isaiah today. “Nations shall walk by your light, kings by your shining radiance.”
The mention of “kings” reminds us of another important element to the Epiphany narrative: wise men, magi popularized in the Christmas hymn, “We three kings.” But the Gospel story does not speak about “kings” … because they were not --- Isaiah refers to “kings” but remember he prophesied 800 years before Christ. The Gospel does not even say that there were “three” of them but only mentions “three gifts” --- gold, frankincense and myrrh --- so the presumption was that there were three of them.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that mentions them at all. They were wise men, the magi: distinguished travelers from the east who were probably scholars, which explains their interest in and interpretation of this peculiar star as an indicator of some miraculous event such as the birth of a new king. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Somehow King Herod and his court missed this star, so it could not have been that bright or unusual. Herod had to be told about the star and the interpretation of it by the magi as they passed through Jerusalem en route to Bethlehem. King Herod was not too happy --- there was only room for ONE king. He was “troubled” the Gospel tells us, once he was reminded by the chief priests that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem.
Once he received a few more details, he sent the magi on their way asking them to return and let him know where the newborn king of the Jews was so he, too, could pay respects. Of course, he had other intentions for this rival.
Again, following the guidance of the star, the magi ended up in Bethlehem and found the Child and his Mother, presenting their gifts, a third element of the Epiphany story predicted by the prophet Isaiah. Influenced by a dream, they never returned to Herod.
Epiphany means “manifestation,” as the author of the second reading’s Letter to the Ephesians identifies it: “the mystery made known by revelation.” The star, the magi, the gifts for the Child --- these were and are the revelation and the manifestation of God that the Messiah, the Christ foretold by the prophets, had arrived in Bethlehem “since,” as Isaiah foretold, “from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Wise men have debated all these many scriptural details of the Christmas and Epiphany accounts in the Gospels for 2,000 years and still do, but our deeper faith in the promised Messiah of God and the whole of his life from Bethlehem onward to the foot of the Cross and every moment between and after are the foundation for Christianity to this very moment.
More important than the “details” and the story line of these accounts is the interpretation that we hold sacred and true: Christ has come, Christ has walked among us, Christ has delivered us from sin, Christ, the “Word made Flesh” has mingled his divinity with our humanity and, in so doing, has shown us the way to authentic human life here on earth and eternal life in heaven.
As the Christmas season comes to its conclusion tomorrow with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as Christians we still proclaim and sing, “O come, let us adore him.”