Today, January 6 is the actual date of the feast of the Epiphany, but in New Zealand, USA, and many other countries the feast is transferred to the nearest Sunday to enable more people to celebrate the feast at Mass. The pope (and Vatican City State) still keep the feast on the traditional twelfth day of Christmas, which is why I am still waiting with great curiosity to hear what Pope Francis preaches in his Epiphany homily at 10.00pm tonight NZ time.
In secular parlance the word ‘epiphany’ means a sudden realization of the true meaning of something. This is because our common usage comes from the religious meaning of Epiphany as the human experience of realising, through the insight of the Magi, the ultimate divine manifestation. Yes, Jesus is the helpless baby born in a stable, but He is also the mighty God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace as Handel’s Hallelujah chorus powerfully proclaims.
The news stories in these days are of the dramatic extremes of human joy and human suffering. Of course this is the reality of every day, but in the light of Christmas celebrations and relaxed time with family and friends the extremes of celebration and pain seem more poignant.
How quickly things can change. Even in the last 24 hours many New Zealanders on summer vacation have suffered great tragedy; fatalities on the water and on the roads, family struggles and violence, sudden deaths.
In whatever part of the world you are reading this, your news stories will tell of these same extremes of joy and suffering.
I know this pattern in my own experience. I might feel great one morning, then the phone rings and I receive news that changes my week and sometimes my life. The converse is true too: in the midst of anxiety, a call from a friend can lift my gloom and fill me with joy.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I am reminded of the words of old Simeon in the temple:
“for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations, the light to enlighten the gentiles and to give glory to Israel your people”. Nunc Dimittis
You might also recall the reading from Isaiah 9:2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned”.
This move from darkness to light is the heart of the feast of the Epiphany. The Magi followed the light of the star to visit visit the infant Christ. They then took the news of the birth of the Messiah beyond the gentile world to all people of good will. The world that was in darkness, have now seen the light.
The intense attraction to the light is a natural and enduring drive for humans as for many creatures. It is in life’s darkest moments that we are most aware of our need for light. As Leonard Cohen sings: “there is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
A journey to see the sunrise is a wonderful experience. But the sun, the most powerful light to touch earth, is but a shaft of the light for which we were created.
We know that we are invited to share this divine light eternally after our earthly life, but how does this help us in the midst of today’s tragedy, and the other burdens of life?
Well, the key is reality. Faith leads me to reality: both the reality of God, and the reality of my own life. We begin every Mass with the invitation: “brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries”. In other words: ‘let us us wake up to our personal (and communal) reality, that we might know our capacity for the reality of God to enter us in this Mass’.
Let’s be honest about this reality: while I am attracted to the light of truth, there are many times when this reality (that highlights every speck of dust and streak of stain) is too much for me. Like Adam and Eve in the garden I head for the seclusion of the shade. And at times I even prefer darkness.
But our attraction to the light remains. Humans can survive darkness. We can exist in the gloom. But only the light provides an environment of growth and life. We much prefer the freedom of openness and honesty to the fear of secrets and deception.
And once again, this is the heart of the Epiphany.
T.S. Eliot has the Magi returning “to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”. This is the effect on the one who has encountered the person of Jesus. We are never again fully at home on earth, even in the fullness of all that our world has to offer. We are drawn to a greater light. And this is a sign that we are healthy, and even happy.
We can never be happier in this world that when we are following THE light.
In the midst of the reality of human suffering, we delight in the one who transforms our days of darkness into an eternal life of light.
Image: Joseph, Mary and the three magi gaze at the newborn babe in Italian artist Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1500). The magi proffer precious gifts: a fine Chinese porcelain bowl filled with gold coins; a censer (for frankincense) made of Turkish tambac ware (an alloy of copper); and a green agate vessel, presumably filled with myrrh. Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum. Bible History Daily.