Christmas Comes Full Circle

01-07-2018Pastoral ReflectionsRev. Brian F. Manning

The Feast of Epiphany has come to us in an indirect way. Like the famous Magi, this feast came from the East, or often called the Levant in times past. Sometime in the fourth century, a visitor to Israel reported that the Nativity of Christ was celebrated in a special vigil that began in the evening of January 5 and lasted well into the sunrise of the next day, January 6. The Western Latin-speaking Church celebrated Christmas on December 25, it then over time adopted this Eastern celebration called Epiphany (the Greek word meaning to appear to make manifest). We all recognize that both the Feasts of Christmas and Epiphany are celebrations of light: Christmas occurs at the time of the winter solstice and the lengthening of daylight; Epiphany, again in the season of darkness, follows the light of the star and becomes the great "Festival of Lights" that celebrates the dawning of the Light who is Jesus Christ.

The thematic connections of the readings for this Feast are quite obvious. How can we fail to connect the images of the great, shining world bathed in new light and the parade of camels and dromedaries from the East with unmistakably wondrous gifts of gold and frankincense? Indeed, the obvious is obvious in the scripture.

The story of the Magi is always fascinating and challenging. Note that only the Gospel of Matthew tells us this story. Inclusion of the story is part of the wider purpose of Matthew's Gospel, to link closely the Jewish and Christian sacred writings. Remember Matthew was writing his Gospel originally for Jews who wanted to know and understand more about Jesus. These inquiring people were well versed in their scripture. Thus the writer Matthew deliberately re-writes Micah's prophecy, "But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel."(5:1). In Matthew's recreated words, it reads, "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah" (2:6). This passage makes us change points of view and thus understandings. Indeed, the small will be great; the center of power will shift; a child will be king. The Magi are truly seekers and seers. They follow all the lights they are able to find. They find a child and see a king. Then, they go home a brand new way; they go home changed and renewed.

This is truly a wonderful and memorable story, yet as we noted it only occurs as a brief story in one Gospel. What is also so interesting is that we know so little of these Magi. Are they kings or are they just wealthy people seeking meaning, or are they astrologers? We are not sure of their home, their number, their occupation or preoccupation. These mysterious, yet powerful figures rise up out of the dark from the East like the rising sun itself and disappear as quickly as they appear.

Our Church, however, proclaims this wonderful story and also asks and invites us to read deeply into the meaning of the story for ourselves and our lives. The Gospel makes boldly clear the manifestation of Jesus, the Word make Flesh. We are invited to ponder on this feast day the promise of God to our whole world, and to consider the whole world's participation, but more importantly, our participation in that promise. Today is a outstanding feast of the universal or "catholic" Church.

Today Christmas comes full circle. For indeed our Church celebrates the light promised in Isaiah shining brilliantly on all nations and all people. The light of Epiphany reveals a God who dwells among us. Like the three Magi, God has journeyed from afar to come to us.