Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord – January 1, 2022
Commemoration of Our Lady of the Cloud, St. Matthew’s Parish, East Stroudsburg
A few years ago, a new sculpture was installed in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome at the request of Pope Francis. The work is entitled “Angels Unawares.” I was privileged to experience this massive and thought provoking work during a visit to Rome in 2019.
The statute 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 Poles running from communism to Central Americans escaping poverty and violence. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are also hidden among the figures. At the center of the crowd of 140 immigrants in the depicted in the sculpture 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 the Solemnity of the Epiphany and the commemoration of Our Lady of the Cloud – which extend God’s message of salvation to all souls who have opened their hearts in trust to God. In the most unlikely of lives and places, from the clouds in the heavens to the lives of faithful people like you and me, 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 and their rich attire is not merely a colorful tale with a happy ending. The magi’s arrival in Bethlehem triggered the unleashing of evil and hatred aimed at the newborn king. But it also revealed something else. Jesus’ message of hope was no longer the exclusive possession of a few but 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 Jesus, 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 and in their hearts. And they worshipped Jesus 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 to Bethlehem. Simply put, the feast of the Epiphany celebrates God’s all-inclusive love. Sadly, however, some of the earliest followers of Jesus struggled with the growing realization that God was not their sole possession, to the exclusion of others.
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.
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 also reminds us that the true gifts brought to the manger in Bethlehem are not gold, frankincense and myrrh but those lasting gifts that flow from the heart of Jesus: humble service – unconditional, sacrificial love – acceptance – and unlimited forgiveness and mercy.
These gifts, brothers and sisters, are available to all who open their lives the presence of Jesus – 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 violence and war – to every soul who seeks meaning, purpose and a way forward in life through an encounter with the living God. In these gifts, we are indeed enveloped by the Spirit of God and, even if unknowingly, find ourselves in the presence of angels.
Through the intercession of Mary, Our Lady of the Cloud, may we be blessed with 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.