There is something special about the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. We are reminded on this day as we celebrate this solemnity within the context of the Divine Liturgy that the Son of God came for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. His saving love is available to everyone, everywhere, in whatever state of life they may find themselves. There is no one outside of God's thirst for love.
Epiphany means manifestation. What the Church celebrates today is the manifestation of our Lord to the whole world; after being made known to the shepherds of Bethlehem He is revealed to the Magi who have come from the East to adore Him. Christian tradition has ever seen in the Magi the first fruits of the Gentiles; they lead in their wake all the peoples of the earth, and thus the Epiphany is an affirmation of universal salvation. St. Leo brings out this point admirably in a sermon, read at Matins, in which he shows in the adoration of the Magi the beginnings of Christian faith, the time when the great mass of the heathen sets off to follow the star which summons it to seek its Savior.
That is the meaning, too, of the wonderful prophecy from Isaiah which the Church appoints to be read at Matins of the feast. This same thought of universal redemption the Church returns to as she sings in the Vigil Service, applying the words to herself, of the union with Christ typified by the wedding feast at Cana, by the baptism of her children foreshadowed by that of Christ in the waters of the Jordan.
Formerly, the Epiphany was an additional day for solemn baptisms, but in the Italo-Greek tradition, this custom was transferred to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when the celebration of that feast was adopted by our Church in 1978.
Many traditions and genuine manifestations of popular piety have been developed in relation to the Solemnity of the Lord's Epiphany. Among such forms of popular piety, mention may be made of the solemn proclamation of Easter and the principal dominical feasts. This pious tradition or custom makes a direct connection between Epiphany and Easter and orientates all feasts towards Pascha, the Feast of feasts.
There is also the exchange of "Epiphany gifts", which derives from the gifts offered to Jesus by the three kings (Matthew 2:11) and more radically from the gift made to mankind by God in the birth of Emmanuel amongst us (Isaiah 7: 14; 9: 16; Matthew 1: 23). It is why Epiphany is oftentimes called “Little Christmas.” However, it is important to ensure that the exchange of gifts on the solemnity of the Epiphany retain a Christian character, indicating that its meaning is evangelical: hence the gifts offered should be a genuine expression of popular piety and free from extravagance, luxury, and waste, all of which are extraneous to the Christian origins of this practice.
Finally, there is the blessing of homes, on whose lintels are inscribed the Cross of salvation, together with the indication of the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), written in blessed chalk. This custom, often accompanied by processions of children accompanied by their parents, expresses the blessing of Christ through the intercession of the three wise men and is an occasion for gathering offerings for charitable and missionary purposes.
Beyond these pious practices and customs, however, the Feast of Epiphany presents us with gifts rich and enduring. They are the gifts of enlightenment, illumination, and discernment. Through the Magi, we are shown the glory and majesty of God. Christ the Light, who illumines and enlightens the world and all mankind, is revealed as God by a star which led the Magi to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King, not just the King of the Jews, but of all men.
The first sentence of this Sunday's Gospel presents us with a contrast between the three principal figures of Jesus, Herod the Great, and the Magi who search the night for the focal point of a star's light, the newborn king of the Jews. Herod stands in between, not as a bridge but as an obstruction whose evil intent is to destroy the Child the Magi seek. Herod represents the opposite of the divine mission of Jesus as well as the goal the magi have in mind in seeking out the Son of God made man.
In comparing and contrasting Jesus, Herod the Great, and the Magi, we can learn an important lesson about how to live our life. Let us begin with Jesus. What was He about? Why did the Son of God appear in time? Why did the Son of God become man? The Church, for centuries, has been consistent in Her teaching as to why the Word was made flesh. She tells us that 1) The "Word became flesh for us to save us by reconciling us with God,” 2) "The Word became flesh so that we might know God's love,” 3) "The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness," 4) "The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature so that we might become sons and daughters of God,” and 5) “The Word became flesh out of boundless love for humanity, that we may have life and have it abundantly.”
Herod, on the other hand, displayed by his actions something of an entirely different sort. When we think of Herod, we think of tyrants who left terrifying and ugly scars on human history: men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), and Ivan IV "the Terrible," to name only a few.
Herod the Great was part of a non-Jewish (Edomite) family that held political favor with Rome. He first ruled Galilee and then all of Palestine. He took power in Jerusalem in 37 B.C. and was later appointed "king of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to replace the collapsing dynasty of Jewish priestly rulers. He held on to his throne until death. He is credited with initiating and completing extensive building projects, of which the renovation of the Jerusalem Temple, which he rebuilt and expanded, is the most well-known.
Herod was disturbed by the "star" the magi followed because it recalled Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. In Numbers 24:17, we read Balaam's prediction: "a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." Herod was troubled by this prophecy since he was an Edomite and knew the same oracle foretold disaster for his family: "Edom shall be dispossessed" (Num. 24:18).
Herod's unrelenting fear was the loss of his power. That a newborn king had been born was an intolerable threat. With typical worldly maneuvering, Herod seeks to stamp out Jesus and thus yet again secure his political position. As we know, he ordered the death of the Holy Innocents in an attempt to rid himself of this perceived threat. However, Jesus was not the least interested in temporal thrones, worldly power or amassing perishable riches. He wishes not to take anything from Herod. On the contrary, Jesus wants to give something to Herod, something Herod cannot possibly win in any political power-play.
Jesus came to give Himself and therefore His kingdom to others. But this is a type of kingdom Herod apparently could not fathom. This kingdom is not of the world. It cannot be taken by force, coercion or political intrigue.
Herod is infamous for his ruthlessness and single-minded devotion to wiping out his enemies, whether friends or family or anyone else who threatened his throne. History records that Herod murdered his favorite wife and three of his sons.
By worldly standards, Herod was the accomplished political survivor; the powerful ruler who would do whatever it takes to maintain his high seat in his own country. Given his building projects, the restoration of the Temple, and his ability to outmaneuver his opponents, some in his time likely saw him as a visionary. But he was not.
The magi were likely astrologers from Persia who were interested in an extraordinary "star" that appeared shining over the location of the infant king of the Jews. However, it was not merely the "star" that caught their eye. For Someone had first caught their hearts.
While Herod was murderously holding on, the magi were wisely letting go. They were watching and waiting not with intent to murder, but intent on finding new hope and new life. They were surveying the night sky not to insulate themselves but to open themselves to the Divine Other who is Himself the source of life. The magi were looking not merely for a sign from God, but rather for Christ Himself, who is the Word made flesh and the perfect image of the Father. Moved by the promise of what they perceived in the heavens, they left their country behind in search of not merely a star, but THE STAR.
Herod is looking for the wrong things, searching in the wrong places, destroying to shore-up his political position, conspiring to annihilate perceived opponents. But the magi take the humble, submissive and wise approach. They seek what is right and true and beautiful. They journey in search of the good, the wondrous, the ultimate. They head out into the dangerous night, risking their lives in search of Divine Light. The magi are the visionaries.
The star the Magi saw was a sign for all people. It is high and in full view. Its light shines down upon the real Star, Jesus Christ, who came to heal, elevate and restore humanity. The light of Jesus Christ, represented by the star over Bethlehem, illuminates the mystery of man, points the way, and reveals the path to salvation and eternal life.
While one day the Star will give up its life for many, its Light will never fade. It is important to ask yourself, "What type of journey am I on?" Who or what do I pursue? What am I willing to leave behind, what am I willing to risk to find God? Am I surveying the night sky to gain power, or to survive in a fallen world, or to live forever in eternal communion with God, held securely in His loving embrace?
Perhaps you once sought but no longer. Perhaps the evanescent lure of the world has deflected you from the journey of illumination in Christ and forced you off course by your own consent toward the path of darkness. Perhaps your vision has become clouded. If so, turn to the Newborn King, whose vision heals and clarifies and restores; turn to Christ whose love heals and gives sight to the blind, bringing light to those who before could not see.
Jesus Christ is THE VISIONARY. His journey is the one to follow. Christ is the Star whose divine light gives meaning to our lives and completes our journey.
In Jesus' vision, there is eternal life for humanity; within this divine vision of love, we will be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). The Son of God became man that we might become like God. There is no greater vision.
St. Leo the Great wrote: "Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God."
After the Magi visited Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and "departed for their country by another way" (Matthew 2:12).
An encounter with the true King of the Jews changes us forever. We might travel back to our country, but it is no longer the familiar home. We might again inhabit old places, but we no longer truly live there. Perhaps we go back to work, to school or to college, but we are different; things are different. The old self is left behind, the new self journeys onward into the new night devoid of darkness. The illumination of the Star guides our every step and movement; the way is no longer uncertain; we are no longer alone. Life is new. We have found an unwavering and certain security in the Light who is Jesus Christ and the Star who infinitely loves. Life becomes lively, exhilarating and joyful even in the midst of suffering. In Christ, we become truly free. In an encounter with the true Visionary, we do not simply embrace His vision but become part of it. We become one with Him.