The Epiphany

January 7, 2012

The following is reprinted with permission from Connect! (Liturgical Publications Inc, WI), a preaching resource that presents two modes of inspiration–one by way of a short image, the other by way of a more extended reflection.

 Homily Image

God is an unsearchable mystery. But not every aspect of God’s transcendent truth and love is like going into a cave—where deeper equals darker. With the Epiphany of the Lord, the emphasis is on what is brought into the light of day: it’s more like hiking out of a cave—where farther equals brighter. The life of faith is this egress of disclosure—where illumination equals liberation and greater clarity equals greater freedom. So, if the mysteries of God’s own heart are unveiled with such refreshing brilliance, what lies in store for ours? Could it actually be divine glory?

Homiletic Reflection

The Epiphany of the Lord sheds new light on the mystery of the Incarnation and Nativity. It also and therefore sheds new light on what we are called to be. The manifestation of God’s hidden plan of reconciliation is a beacon of hope for us because we can dare to say that we are incorporated into that revelation! Christ is the perfect image of the Father; and we who have been baptized into Christ are renovated in him. Accordingly, our humanity is renewed and elevated. “Christ reveals man to himself,” as Bl. John Paul II was fond of saying, in echo of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes: We see and find ourselves anew.

            And we do need to be shown to ourselves. You might say that we can’t get to the bottom of ourselves. All of us experience this when we are beguiled by our own muddled motivation: what is really leading me to buy this car, to watch this film, to be upset with this colleague, or even to go to church?! The Prophet Jeremiah pertinently speaks of the self as just such a quandary when he exclaims, “More torturous than all else is the human heart; who can understand it?” (Jer 17.9). The heart is the place that receives the word of God; and it is from this mysterious place that decisions proceed forth. (Hence, first of all, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…”) But we do not always do what we want. We actually break our own hearts—so much so that, in a cry that is universally resonant, St. Paul confesses, “I do not do the good that I love but the evil that I hate” (Rom 7.15).

Now, to be sure, we may have certain true and helpful insights about our upbringing, about the reason for our tastes and prejudices, and about the weaknesses we need to address through the development of virtue. We may have even grown quite adept at psychoanalyzing ourselves (… often enough placing the blame for the way we are here and there!). But however well informed we may be about ourselves, whatever our degree of self-knowledge, we cannot truly be our own objects; for, to truly objectify oneself would be at once to lose oneself. (This is why people who display overly affected personas or stylized fashions are actually less self-expressive than the rest of us, not more so: they are too much their own objects, quite possibly because they are not at home with themselves.)

We might apply one of St. Paul’s lines to this basic obstacle to perfect self-understanding, “We see as in a mirror… darkly” (1 Cor 13.12). Even if this statement is not about self-knowledge, it is nevertheless apropos, since it’s a statement about the nature of faith (cf. 2 Cor 3.18). And what Epiphany-faith celebrates is the manifestation of what remains unseen in God’s human conception and birth—part of which is our future! As our Opening Prayer or Collect for the day says, “O God, who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star, grant in your mercy that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.” The Epiphany’s light is that starry guide through the night of faith into the new and everlasting dawn of glory.

            At the heart of this brilliant disclosure lies an especial kind of personal encounter—where one discovers oneself anew in terms of one’s discovery of the Incarnation. Think of the magi in St. Matthew. These pagans had long studied the secret ways of the cosmos and they discerned that something other-worldly as well as earthly wonderful was taking place: They wanted to see the newborn king of the Jews. In seeking him out, they meet King Herod. Supernaturally warned not to return to Herod with word of the child’s birth, they return to their country, having paid homage and tithes to the Virgin’s Son. It’s interesting to consider that Christian tradition has routinely depicted these magi, not as astrologists but as kings. In other words, they have become more than what they were… they have not only become what the evil Herod thought he was, they have, in a way, become what the God-babe forever is—a king!

The first lesson from Isaiah proclaims this same mystery of self-discovery in communal terms. Toward the end of the prophet’s book, he foretells the wonders of Jerusalem: “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” This manifestation of God’s glory accomplishes two things. First, it unveils the promise of Jerusalem’s privileged election; second, and through this unveiling, the same promise irradiates outward for the entire world! On the one hand, “Upon [Israel] the Lord shines, and over [her] appears his glory.” On the other hand, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” Recognition of the true God’s ultimate kingship is afforded to the Gentiles through the glorification of Israel. In turn, the nations discover who they ultimately are in recognizing the privileged status of Israel. Finally, we discover who we are ultimately called to be in recognizing the wonderful child that is held in the Virgin Mother’s arms.

Before this Lamb of God had passed by John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness knew he was not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals, and that he must decrease while the one who was to come must increase. But Christian self-abnegation is an entrée to self-discovery. If the baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan is associated with the Epiphany, it’s not only because Christ’s public ministry is initiated and the heavens are opened. Moreover, John the Baptist is enlightened about who he is to be, in terms of Christ—a martyr of the faith. And as a consequence of this epiphany, which yields self-discovery in terms of Christ-discovery, the Church does not only celebrate the Baptist’s martyrdom: As she does only with Christ and Our Lady—she also celebrates his nativity.

             “What we utter is God’s wisdom: a mysterious, hidden wisdom…. ‘Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.’ Yet God has revealed this wisdom to us…” (1 Cor 2.7, 9–10a). Peer in the mirror—and pray to discover Christ (cf. James 1.25).

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