Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord – January 8, 2017
The story of the magi, who finally arrive in Bethlehem, completes the gathering of characters that assemble for the birth of Jesus. With their unique and precious gifts – their rich attire – and their colorful retinues, which in most instances include a camel or two, and in some nativity scenes, even an elephant – we are just about ready to bring the curtain down on another Christmas season.
To be certain, the image of these seekers journeying to Bethlehem carries with it a heartwarming quality that we both cherish and impart to our children and grandchildren. The gospel writer Matthew, however, chronicles the magi’s arrival to help set the stage less for a sensational ending to the story of Jesus’ birth and much more in order to provide us with a vision into the mission and message of Jesus – the Messiah and Savior.
You see, the story of the magi’s search for the newborn Christ is not solely a romantic tale with a happy ending. Yes – the magi were individuals who, despite their great wealth and power, were unfulfilled until they discovered the Christ child in Bethlehem. However, their arrival in Bethlehem and their acceptance of the life and peace that the Christ offered to them, unwittingly triggered the unleashing of evil and hatred aimed at the source of their worship and praise.
The very next verse that follows the conclusion of today’s gospel finds the holy family preparing to flee to Egypt in order to protect the life of their newborn son from the rage of King Herod. Much more than bringing a deserved sense of splendor and majesty to the birth of Jesus, the arrival of the magi sets the stage for a story of suffering, hardship and death. Their arrival is a prelude to a lifelong struggle on the part of Jesus to bring justice to lands afflicted with conflict and to heal people scarred by war and hatred. Their arrival and unexpected welcome as Gentiles also points to Jesus’ message of hope for all peoples through his self-sacrificing life and unconditional love.
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 – a message that, ironically, we accept in the stable of Bethlehem but so often forget in our efforts to live Jesus’ gospel. The feast of the Epiphany celebrates, more than anything else, God’s all-inclusive love. Any limits we try to place on it simply do not hold – at least from God’s perspective.
You see, the magi were Gentiles, not Jews. They didn’t belong in Bethlehem. They were different. As the promised Messiah of Israel, one would have thought that only members of the chosen people would have been welcome at the birth of Jesus. But the magi – outsiders from the East – 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 Jesus and opened their lives to his presence.
The prophet Isaiah, in today’s first reading, tells Jerusalem, the center for Israelite faith, that God’s glory would not only shine upon her but upon all nations. … And Saint Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Yet, the earliest followers of Jesus struggled with the growing realization that God was not the sole possession of the Jews, the chosen people. 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? … But sadly, even today, many 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 that ought never forget. We have been 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 the likes of me or you. Quite frankly, however, that reality can be challenging, especially when someone we judge unworthy shows us how to live our faith, or when someone of another faith tradition lives God’s love in ways that we fail. … Unfortunately, we still often fail to understand and accept the message of the magi.
About six years ago, when my uncle passed away and my aunt, already in her 90’s refused to leave her home in New Jersey to live near her daughter in Massachusetts, the family living next door to her became her unofficial caregivers. They shoveled her walk, cut her grass, delivered her food, brightened her day with visits from their little children, discovered her on the floor when she fell and could not get up, took her to the hospital and cried openly at her funeral. … My aunt’s neighbors were devout Muslims. They lived the beatitudes that we cherish as our own spiritual guide. Yet, sadly, they represent countless numbers of people of faith and good will who are far too often categorized, criticized and kept at arm’s length from the same love and mercy of God that we seek and celebrate.
In his message for the 50th World Day of Peace, celebrated on January 1st of this New Year, Pope Francis put into perspective some of the struggles that we face when confronted with the tension of living the gospel of Jesus. “The Jubilee of Mercy that ended in November encouraged each one of us to look deeply within and to allow God’s mercy to enter there. The Jubilee also taught us to realize how many and diverse are the individuals and social groups treated with indifference and subjected to injustice and violence. They too are part of our “family”; they too are our brothers and sisters. The politics of nonviolence have to begin in the home and then spread to the entire human family. Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship.”
My friends, the message of this great feast of Epiphany – which is at once both consoling and challenging – reminds us that Jesus does not remain in a manger forever. He goes forth to do his Father’s work. The heartwarming story of his birth yields to a different story: the story of humble service – unconditional, sacrificial love – and unlimited forgiveness and compassion. These are the real gifts of Christmas – 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.
May we pray for the wisdom and courage to embrace not merely the story of Jesus’ birth but especially his life, death and resurrection – at the heart of which we discover the surest means of achieving life and lasting peace.