After a break from blogging to enter the rich darkness of Advent and experience the light of Christmas, here are the five spiritual lessons I have gleaned from the Epiphany Gospel (St. Matthew 2.1-12), find all the readings here.
The Gospel reading given to us for the Epiphany is one of my favourites and I have found in these twelve short verses a rich source for reflection and prayer from the time I first heard it read in this church a few years ago.
As the short and beautiful season of Christmas draws to a close and BC once more gives way to AD, it is very fitting for the lectionary to give us the account of these strange visitors tothe manger and reflect on the meaning of their journey for us today. I love this reading because in the symbols and movements and drama of the story it seems to me that the whole Christian story is displayed and from it we can draw spiritual insights of immense richness and importance.
The Gospel opens with our first lesson, it begins:
‘In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
The magi, astronomers of sorts, find in the sky a sign of God and recognise its significance – they discern in the world around them the marks of God’s activity. This is the lesson: look, see, discern! God is always and everywhere displaying his purposes to us, in the world, in the Scriptures, in the liturgy and we must join the magi and discern God’s activity in our lives. We must keep awake to what God is calling us to do or to be, we must seek out his will as these exotic magi did in the first century. Is God calling you to deepen your involvement in the life of the Church? Is he calling you to action on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, perhaps to make that call or pay a visit to a sick, lonely or distressed family member or friend that we never seem to have the time to do? Or perhaps we are growing to recognise that a habit or character trait causes harm to others and God is calling us to amend your ways?
God is always revealing his purposes to us, often in surprising ways, and we must be people who watch and discern his will for us, cultivating habits of watchfulness through prayer and scripture.
But the Magi don’t just discern God’s will and stay where they are, hoping it will go away and this is the second lesson of the Epiphany, we must move, we must act! We must act in response to God’s call and follow where he leads us. Often it seems that we know God’s will for us but we fail to move or heed his call. We know what God wants of us but we don’t act – we know God longs for us to raise up the poor, but we still hurry past the homeless person in the street, we know God tells us to love our neighbour, but we still turn a blind eye when it suits us, we know we ought to make time for God each day, but we let the bustle of daily life get in the way. To travel ‘from the East’ in the first century was a dangerous thing, the magi would have faced many challenges on the road to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem, but they responded to God’s call: they saw and they acted. We too must muster up the courage to implement God’s will for us. Now, as the New Year begins, is the day to resolve to hear and act on God’s call to each and every one of us.
But, my friends, the reading continues and tells us of Herod, Herod who trembled at the news of Jesus’ birth and schemes to have him killed. Here is the third lesson of the Epiphany: expect opposition when you walk the way of God, for God’s revelation disturbs the world! The great author J.R.R. Tolkien once said that ‘the spiritual life is always a fight’, and you only need to read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to see that forces of good are always violently opposed by the forces of evil. The world often stands in opposition to the way of Christ – you need look to the greed of big corporations or the disregard of most people to the breakdown of the middle east, to recognise that Christ’s way stands in opposition to much of what the world values.
We need only think of the controversy before Christmas of the banning of the Lord’s Prayer advert in cinemas. When the disciples of Christ go to the cinema, we are subjected to adverts which expound a philosophy at odds with what we believe in, the myth that happiness comes from acquiring various consumer goods, values illustrated in clever little adverts that play on our desires to be attractive and powerful. The ban on the Lord’s Prayer reflects the challenge our faith represents to the ways of the world – the Lord’s prayer contains the hope that there will be food and well-being for all, that we may learn not to think all the time in terms of what is owed to us but of what we might do to release others from guilt and debt; and that we may not be tested by life beyond what we can bear. It encodes a philosophy of life which has its roots in that cave on a hillside in Bethlehem in which the unlimited mercy and generosity of God was at work.
With this as our story, expect opposition. As we walk the narrow way, the path of love, compassion, non-violence and self-sacrifice we walk against the flow of our culture and we proclaim that people are more valuable than their possessions or their usefulness and that God’s love and acceptance reaches even to the margins of the world. There will be Herods for whom this way of life is a threat, a threat to their power, a threat to their wealth, a threat to their comfort, and we can only pray that the dawn from on high would visit them and show them the way.
The magi have seen and acted, they have faced opposition and come to the manger throne and here, in their reaction, we find our penultimate lesson:
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts…
As they enter the cave where Jesus was born they fall down and worship, in Greek this means they fell down and kissed the floor before this infant king enthroned on the lap of his virgin Mother. This is the only reaction to Christ, it’s why I bend my knee before the tabernacle in which Christ’s presence dwells, it’s why we gather to offer the Holy Mass, it’s why we greet the Gospel with alleluias… but the magi, wise as they are, go further. They don’t just worship him, they give him the best they have – they break open their coffers and give him the most fitting and precious gifts they can, they offer him their treasure. Gold, a gift fitting for the king; frankincense which points to the mystery of his divine identity and myrrh which points to Christ as the one who will die so that we might live.
These are precious gifts, and this is the fourth lesson of the magi: give to Christ the best you have, for nothing else will do. Most of us, and I count myself as a miserable offender here, seem content to give God a little of our time or energy but Christ wants all of you, the best of you, the gold in you and not the bronze. As we approach the manger throne, break open the coffers of your heart and offer to our infant Lord the best of your energy, your creativity, your imagination, your possessions and your time.
On the Feast of the Epiphany, having witnessed the glory of God manifest at Christmas, we ought to pledge the best of ourselves to God. Lets break open the coffers of our hearts and souls and minds, offering all we are upon the holy altar and offer the homage of your life – in Isaiah’s words, ‘arise, shine!’ My friends, I love to have a star on the top of my Christmas tree and I often gaze in wonder at the heavens, but there is no star big enough to capture the gaze of people lost in themselves and lost in the pursuit of wealth and power, no star who hovers above this church inviting people in … No star, that is, but you! You and I are called to be stars, shining in the temple of God, manifesting his presence in the way we live our lives and, like St. Paul, calling all people into fellowship with the Christ whom we adore.
So, we have learnt four lessons from the magi of the east: we must look and be attentive to the revelation of God; we must act on his call; we must expect opposition and persevere and, finally, we must offer to Christ the gold of our hearts and minds. But there is a final lesson buried in the last verse of the Gospel on this great feast, the reading simply says:
The magi having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, left for their own country by another road.
Encounter with Jesus Christ changes us, encountering this person gives life a new horizon and gives us a decisive new direction. If you dare kneel before the Holy Child of Bethlehem expect things to change, for no-one sees Christ and continues on the same path – if you are willing to give your life to Christ things will never be the same. And that is the final lesson, as we immerse ourselves in the reality of God’s love, made flesh in Christ, we cannot continue on the way we were travelling – true encounter with Jesus is always transformative, always life changing.
So, we have learnt from the Magi five spiritual lessons – discern God’s presence in your life, act on it, beware opposition and finally, and most importantly, offer the best of who you and what you have to the Lord of all and be transformed. I suppose all this can be summed up in those truly ancient words of Isaiah, ‘Arise, Shine!’. In the coming days of Epiphany, let us walk with the Magi as our companions, into the stable and kneel in adoration at the Christ-child. Then, fed by his presence, we can offer ourselves and our hearts to God and manifest Christ to the world and draw all people, as is God’s great plan, into loving communion with him who is the prince of peace, our joy and our salvation.