Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord – January 5, 2020
This past September, a new sculpture was installed in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome at the request of Pope Francis. The work, created by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor, is “Angels Unawares.” I was privileged to experience this massive and thought provoking work during my recent trip to Rome.
The statute, the first to be installed in Saint Peter’s Square in over 400 years, is a 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high bronze and clay work of art depicting 140 immigrants of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities. The artist took inspiration from pictures of refugees and immigrants throughout history — from persecuted Jews to Christians fleeing the Middle East, from Irish escaping the potato famine to Poles running from communism. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are also hidden among the figures. At the center of the crowd of 140 immigrants, the same number as the saintly figures topping the colonnade surrounding the piazza, are a pair of wings directed at the sky. The angel wings hearken to the title of the artwork, “Angels Unawares,” which is taken directly from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
For me, this sculpture and the message it proclaims to its viewers powerfully captures the essence of today’s celebration of Epiphany – which extends God’s message of salvation to all souls who have opened their hearts to God. … In the most unlikely of lives and places, God is present – angels are among us, even if unknowingly – working miracles and turning hearts to the Lord!
The story of the magi, who finally arrive in Bethlehem with their unique and precious gifts – their rich attire – and their colorful retinues –is not merely a romantic tale with a happy ending. The magi’s arrival in Bethlehem triggered the unleashing of evil and hatred aimed at the new-born king and the very mission of mercy and salvation that he was born to bring to our world. For their arrival and welcome – particularly as Gentiles – revealed that Jesus’ message of hope was extended to all peoples through his self-sacrificing life and unconditional love.
While the scope of Jesus’ saving grace may seem quite reasonable to us, for many, the magi, as Gentiles, didn’t belong in Bethlehem. They were different. Many believed that only the chosen ones of Israel should have been recipients of God’s saving grace. But the magi – outsiders from the East – turned that understanding of God upside down. They were clearly welcomed and were given a special place among those who came to worship the newborn king of the Jews. They were welcomed primarily because they were seeking something more in life than the riches of this world. They listened to God in their dreams – in their hearts. And recognizing in Jesus the fulfillment of all that they sought, they worshipped him and opened their lives to his presence.
More than ever, our world and our lives need to embrace the message of God that is proclaimed this day through the visit of the magi. Simply put, the feast of the Epiphany celebrates God’s all-inclusive love. Any limits we try to place on it simply do not hold – at least from God’s perspective.
Sadly, some of the earliest followers of Jesus struggled with the growing realization that God was not the sole possession of the Jews, the chosen ones. Many of the first believers in Jesus attempted to place parameters around where God was able to work, with whom and how. … That reality seems strange, doesn’t it? … Unfortunately, even today, some of us act or feel much the same way at times, don’t we? We believe that God, in Jesus, is our special possession. And we are often more reluctant than we might imagine to loosen our grip and share the same mercy and love of God which we so boldly request and readily embrace.
Today’s feast, with the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, offers an essential insight into our faith as Christians that we ought never forget. All of us are saved not by our own righteousness but by the mercy and love of God won for us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Such overwhelming love and mercy can never be limited by our determination of who is worthy of God’s saving grace.
My friends, the message of this great feast of Epiphany – which is at once both consoling and challenging – reminds us that Jesus did not remain in a manger forever. He went forth to do his Father’s work. The heartwarming details of his birth yield to a different story: the story of humble service – unconditional, sacrificial love – and unlimited forgiveness and compassion.
These, brothers and sisters, are the real gifts of Christmas and Epiphany – gifts available to all who open their hearts to Jesus’ presence – from those who worship with reverence and devotion – to the suffering poor who are unable to find their way to a church – to immigrants seeking a better life – to refugees fleeing from terrorism and war – to the magi of our time: every soul who seeks meaning, purpose and a way forward in life through an encounter with the living God. In these gifts and in the lives of so many who seek them, we are indeed enveloped by the Savior and, even if unknowingly, we find ourselves in the presence of angels.
May we pray for the wisdom and courage to embrace not merely the story of Jesus’ birth but the example of his life, death and resurrection – at the heart of which we discover the surest means of achieving life and lasting peace.