When I was young, my parents would read me stories. Stories like, “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book,” where the suspense would build and build, until I just couldn’t stand it, and all I wanted to do was to skip to the end, to find out what happens!
Maybe some of you have seen those movies by M. Night Shyamalan, who always seems to work in some strange twist about two-thirds of the way into the movie. Just when you think you have all the information, BAM! Something gets revealed.
Today, on the feast of the Epiphany, we get a big reveal in the story of salvation—three big reveals, in fact.
A Triple Revelation
Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “manifestation,” or “appearing.” And that is what we come to celebrate today—the manifestation of God. In the Eastern Church, the feast of the Epiphany takes on a triple meaning:
- the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus,
- the baptism of the Lord,
- the wedding at Cana.
Today, in the Western Church, we split these three events into three separate days, but, this year the feast of the Baptism actually falls this Monday, and the Wedding at Cana story is only heard in year C. So, allow me to speak briefly on each of these three manifestations—revelations—of our God.
The visit of the Magi
This week we finally complete our Nativity sets, and we see the three wise men, or Magi, gathered around the newborn infant Jesus. In the rectory, my three Magi statues have been slowly trekking across the library, from one shelf to the other, until finally tonight/today they have reached the small table where I placed the manger scene.
This is a little tradition of mine, to keep the Magi on the road until the day of Epiphany. One time when I was in college, I was on my way to a wedding in Elgin, Texas; two friends of mine from the Catholic Student Association were getting married. Since hotels tend to be expensive, I asked to stay with some friends in Georgetown. They were gracious enough to open their home to me, but unfortunately, they too, were on the road that weekend. So, they let me stay in their house even though they weren’t home. It was right about this time of year, and they had set up their manger scene in the living room on a table, complete with—you guessed it—the three Magi. But the timing was such that it was not yet Epiphany, and so I decided that this was just not right, and so I moved the Magi away from the manger scene. At first, I moved them across the room, but then an idea struck me. Why not make this a fun game for my friends to find when they return home next week? And so, I went about hiding the three Magi figurines in various closets and cabinets throughout the house. Then I spent the rest of the evening coming up with rhyming riddles to lead my absent hosts to find these hapless wise men. Of course, my friends came home to find their Nativity set turned into a scavenger hunt, and it was an instant hit. Everyone on Facebook wanted Joe to come stay at their house.
In a way, this search for the wise men is a sort of parallel to man’s search for wisdom. Our search for meaning in life. These Magi were no fools—they were among the smartest people in the world at the time, and they had a hunger for knowledge and wisdom. They wanted to know the deep truths of the universe. And they had already unlocked a great deal of knowledge thru what the natural world had to offer. After all, they were smart enough to understand the significance of the star that appeared in the heavens, and to follow it all the way to Judea.
But they could not have known that the God of the universe would become one of us. They could not have logically arrived at the mystery of the Incarnation unless God had revealed it to us. In that sense, the Magi were living in darkness, searching for light. Not unlike those poor figurines, stuck in the cupboards and cabinets in my friends’ house.
Now, on Epiphany, that God of mystery, the God they could barely understand by the power of human reason, has revealed himself. The light has come into the world, and we have seen its glory.
It’s significant that these Magi come from different parts of the world. Sometimes the three figurines are painted to look like different races, and this is for a reason—because the promise that was once extended only to the Jews is now expanded to all nations. And this is the climax of the Christmas season—Christ is made known to all the nations! All peoples, all nations are now part of the new covenant. We share the promises of Christ and the inheritance of heaven, as we heard in the second reading today from St. Paul.
Let’s focus in on St. Paul for just a moment. Just imagine what this good news must have meant to St. Paul. Here is a man who was raised a Jew, who believed that salvation came from scrupulously following the letter of the law. He was, in what we may call in today’s terms, an ideologue. But then Paul had a conversion—a unique revelation of Jesus Christ—on the road to Damascus. It was like St. Paul’s own little epiphany. And in that revelation, during his period of blindness and recovery, he learned from Jesus what the good news really was—that God is a loving Father, and now everyone is invited to be his adopted sons and daughters. Everyone! Not just the Jews, who were previously the chosen people of God. Now everyone is invited to be part of the family.
It was this revelation that impelled St. Paul to traverse the ancient world, starting churches and preaching the good news to the Gentiles, that is, the pagans.Now, unless you have some Jewish blood in you from way back down the line, you and I were not part of that family. We were not included in that covenant. But now, thru the grace of God, and thru our baptism, we are included. We are like branches grafted onto the true vine, Jesus Christ. Adopted sons and daughters of God.
That’s the message the Magi bring to us today. Today, salvation has come to all nations.
The baptism of the Lord
Speaking of baptism, this day of Epiphany also recalls the baptism of our Lord Jesus, another revelation of sorts. In the gospel of Mark, when Jesus went to be baptized in the Jordan, the clouds parted and the Holy Spirit came down like a dove and rested on Jesus, and a loud voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
In this scene, we have yet another manifestation—the revelation of the Holy Trinity. For in one moment, we have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all manifesting themselves at the same time. This is also a new thing! No one could have guessed that the God of the universe is actually three persons in one divine being—a community of persons. Sure, plenty of people believed in the one God. The pagans believed in a multitude of gods. But only thru God’s self-manifestation did we come to know that his is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a family.
We are invited into that family. We have more than a God who is just something to submit ourselves to. We have more than a God who merely gives us rules to follow. We have a loving Father. Furthermore, we have a brother who happens to be the King. That means you’re in the royal family now. Not a bad deal! And you have an advocate, a comforter, a guide in the Holy Spirit. He’s the very presence of God within your own soul. And he comes to dwell within you at your own baptism. Welcome to the family.
The wedding at Cana
Finally, there’s the wedding at Cana. We all remember the story. They run out of wine at the wedding feast, and Jesus saves the day, turning the water into wine—a great abundance of wine, and of the best kind too. This too is a manifestation, because it’s Jesus’ first public miracle. It’s the first sign of his true power as the Son of God.
I have to admit, it sort of reminds me of Superman, who came to earth from the heavens, as it were, and possessed superhuman powers. In the movies and in shows like Smallville, Clark’s parents try their best to keep his powers a secret while he’s a boy. But inevitably, disasters strike, and young Clark has to decide whether it’s time to use his super strength to save someone.
Seems like the creators of Superman and all its spin-offs are really borrowing from the same story—the greatest story—the story of Jesus Christ.
You and I are part of that story. That story unfolds in a big way today on Epiphany. Christ is made known as the son of God, God reveals himself as the Holy Trinity, and the covenant is extended to all nations. But the story isn’t over yet. God’s still writing the story. And he’s in the middle of your chapter. What is he writing today? How is God working in your life? How is he manifest to you? If we take the time to notice God today, we just might have our own little Epiphany.