Today we’re celebrating the Epiphany, which technically falls each year on January 6 in the liturgical calendar. That means we still have a couple of more days to enjoy the fullness of the Christmas season, even as we begin to think about the significance of the Epiphany.
When the Epiphany first became a specific date on the liturgical calendar, it marked a celebration of Jesus’ baptism—which is what it continues to be in the Eastern tradition of Christianity. But in the early development of Western Christianity, the story of the Magi journeying to find the infant Jesus took on a special significance, independent of Jesus’ baptism. This is why we celebrate the Epiphany today, followed by the Baptism of Jesus next Sunday.
The term “epiphany,” as we all know, suggests something of a lightbulb moment, an illumination of new understanding. What are some lightbulb moments of 2020? I think it’s finally dawned on us—or perhaps we’re struggling to acknowledge—that our way of life, which has afforded many of us a great deal of comfort, is utterly unsustainable. The pandemic has exacerbated serious social, political, and ecological deficiencies. Inequities that have festered for decades have been exposed as downright intolerable. Another epiphany of 2020 is the nature of COVID-19 itself. According to a study out of South Korea, 30% of all positive cases are totally asymptomatic. Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested that, in the U.S., the number is 40%. So who’s spreading the virus? It could be anyone, even those without any symptoms, who haven’t been tested.
These have been rather negative epiphanies. But they’re balanced, even outweighed, by the timeless Epiphany that we celebrate today in the story of the Magi—those Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia. They were captivated by a mysterious star. From their night-time reading of the skies, they concluded that the star pointed to the birth of a new king of the Jews. On one level, the story of the Magi is simply a historical recounting of their own epiphany—discovering a newborn Jewish king, and then later locating him in-person in Bethlehem. But on another level, the story provokes an epiphany for anyone intrigued with who Jesus really is. When we read this story, we’re compelled to consider Jesus’ identity as Messiah and king. But I think the story does even more than that. It opens a window for us to envision the divine reality of Jesus’ Good News. It’s an invitation to consider the oneness of God—the God who permeates all things; the God who is unbounded. To say that God is unbounded means that borders and boundaries are transgressed and broken down. I think this is something that shines through in today’s Gospel.
One boundary that we see overcome is the one between people of different ethnicities and religious traditions. It’s not inconsequential that Zoroastrian astrologers—not Jewish priests—first announced the birth of Jesus the Messiah in Jerusalem. That’s because the significance of Jesus outreaches the religion of Torah; it extends far beyond the borders of Israel. It brings hope even to those places where Jews were held in exile (like Persia), places that some would want to forget and block out. But the light of Christ shines into every corner of the world, transforming those who encounter it—irrespective of their religious commitments and ethnic identities. In fact, the light of Christ can be mediated through the very practices of other faiths—such as Zoroastrian astrology! I think one thing we can learn here is that, in our day, the light of Christ shines beyond the Church, and sometimes even in spite of it. We need to be open to learn from those whose lives have been touched by the light, particularly those of different faith traditions or even no religious affiliation. We owe it to ourselves to appreciate more of what is beyond the world of Christianity and to cultivate friendships with those of other faiths.
Another boundary overcome in today’s Gospel is on a structural level, between religion and politics. King Herod in Jesus’ day was a client ruler of the region of Palestine, under the authority of the ancient Roman empire. As long as Herod looked good with Rome, he would hold sway. But Herod becomes very unnerved when he’s informed that the Messiah has been born. He knows that the Messiah would not be a mere “spiritual” leader. Messianic hope was all-encompassing: its reach was spiritual, material, political, communal, national. That is threatening to existing political power. From the era of the Reformation up to the present, a social contract has been struck between political power and religious communities: religion cares for the soul, while politics takes responsibility for everything else—the body and material existence. I think what we learn from today’s Gospel is that this division of responsibility collapses. The light of Christ confronts political power and unsettles it. In fact, those of us who follow the light may find ourselves distrustful of the powers, just like the Magi, never returning to “Herod” but leaving via a different road. That other road is the Way of Jesus itself, a way of envisioning life together beyond the binaries of religion and politics.
Finally, let me suggest another boundary that’s overcome—the boundary between what some sociologists might call the sacred and the profane—or, in other words, the line between the holy and the ordinary. Today’s Gospel is a story about Eastern astrologers, a curious star, an insecure vassal king, an infant of lowly birth, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and dreams of warning. It’s challenging to identify what is holy and what is just ordinary. The whole story, it seems to me, is imbued with sacredness—from the guiding star to the gifts presented to the infant Jesus to everything in between, including the Magi’s encounter with King Herod. That, I think, is the point of the Epiphany: that we can now see all reality as permeated by God, illumined by the light of Christ.
As we move forward into 2021, let’s keep that perspective in view. God is never not in our lives, and we can always be surprised by how ordinary moments can be filled with holiness. In fact, every moment is already holy. Our challenge as a parish family is to share that reality, to embody it for our neighbors, so that they can have lasting hope even as the pandemic rages.