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Homily – Feast of the Epiphany – 2011: Be The Light!

January 4, 2011

As kids, we all learned that song, “We Three Kings”. No, not the one that we sang this morning, but the one with the kings and the rubber cigar. (We Three Kings of Orient are/Trying to smoke a rubber cigar/It was Loaded, it exploded/That’s how we traversed so far!) And now everybody will have those lyrics stuck in their head the rest of the day…

But this got me thinking about how we think about Epiphany, what we emphasize, what we usually see as the point. Mostly we think about the kings, and the star, about King Herod trying to snake the Magi into giving up the location of the Christ child. And we think about what Jesus got from the Magi: every child here, I bet can name the gifts the brought to Jesus. What did they bring? (Ask for responses) See? Everybody knows about the gold, frankincense and myrrh!

And it occurs to me that, by focusing on the three kings, and the gold, frankincense and myrrh, and all the other tiny details of the story of the Magi, we miss what the Church is really trying to teach us about Christ, and about ourselves, with this celebration.

And the point isn’t the Magi of thousand years ago.

Where did this feast day come from, anyway? Epiphany was first celebrated in the Eastern Church to observe the birth of Christ; Christmas as we would recognize it came hundreds of years later there. In the West, while the celebration of the Nativity was the first celebration of Christ’s coming, the Church of Rome added a feast to acknowledge Jesus ’manifestation to the world. The word epiphany comes to us from the Greek epiphaneia, which means “appearing”, or “coming”. Our Feast of the Epiphany is literally a celebration of the “appearance” of the Lord before all of mankind, personified by the three Gentile kings.

And note the details. The Magi visited well after Jesus’ actual birth, not the same night or even the same week of His birth; they likely visited the Holy Family somewhere other than a stable. And look at the gifts they brought! Jesus didn’t get no bicycle, or PlayStation 3 for His birthday! He received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, strange gifts by our standards!

History, tradition, and Hollywood have filled in a lot of other things for us, some of which help, but some of which just sensationalize the event of the Three Kings arriving, but which don’t help us understand.

The wise men followed…a light from the Heavens. That light led them to Jesus, even though the Jews of Jerusalem couldn’t quite see it!

So what’s the significance of all these details?

Well, first, the Magi coming to Jesus is the event that makes it clear that Jesus is here for everyone. The angels’ announcement to the shepherds at Christmas demonstrated that Jesus came for the poor, the lowly and neglected in society; the shepherds hearing the news first tells us that. The Magi being the first to acknowledge Jesus publicly as a King shows that Jesus came for the Gentiles as well.

The star leading the Magi to Jesus across hundreds miles of desert signifies Jesus’ call to faith, directed to all of mankind, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Magi dropping everything to leave immediately signifies the response of faith that comes from seeing the Light of Christ.

And the gifts weren’t just randomly selected, either. Gold is a tribute for royalty. Frankincense was used to worship God, as prayers rise with the smoke from the censer. And Myrrh was an expensive ointment used to care for the bodies of men. So, in their gifts, the Magi acknowledged Jesus as true God, true man, and King of all!

All that symbolism is vaguely inspiring, maybe…but so what? Why should we care?

See, the problem with quaint stories with lots of cute little details is that the details that we miss out on the big picture! The value of Epiphany is much more than pretty pictures of kings and dromedaries. It’s much more, because we figure into the story at almost every turn!

“Wise men still seek Him?” I’ll give you that. We should all constantly be seeking Christ in our lives, yes. So we’re all like the Magi, in a way.

But…where is the Star that new seekers follow to find Christ? That star is in us! The Light of Christ that we each receive at our baptisms is supposed to be kept burning brightly. Why? So that others may see our faith and follow it to Christ! And when we stand up for right, for truth, for what should be instead of what is, when we stand against the darkness and with the Light, we are the Star, showing others the way to Christ!

Remember I said that the point of the Feast of the Epiphany isn’t really the Magi?

It’s not. The point of the Epiphany of the Lord is not just that Christ was worshiped by three Gentile Kings. No…The point is that Christ continues to be worshiped by Gentiles even today! The point is that people do still seek the Light of Christ. The point is that, while the Magi followed a heavenly light to arrive at the home of the Redeemer, the Seekers of today follow another Light to find Him. And that light is in each one of us.

Heavy responsibility? Absolutely. But the Church doesn’t just leave us out there alone to bear it. The whole of our sacramental life in the Church is meant to kindle that Light of Christ in us. We gather to worship, and we gather to learn, so that we can better represent that Light in each of us.

Epiphany is about far more than Kings, and rubber cigars. Epiphany is about the Light of the world, being manifested to the Gentiles. It’s about that light leading all nations to God.

Most importantly, it’s about the call of Christ, asking each of us:

Be the Light!

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