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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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 of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Epiphany means manifestation. Today we celebrate not only the manifestation of God at the Incarnation, but also His other manifestation to us and to people who have touched our lives in every age. Moreover, every moment of grace, such as a conversion, a new insight, or a new stage of spiritual growth, can be called an epiphany. In addition to celebration, we can learn at the solemnity how to recognize epiphanies in our lives and in the lives of those we are called to help.
For bettering understanding of today’s Gospel, which is Matthew’s story of the manifestation to the wise men from the East, we can also read it side by side with Luke’s story of the shepherds and the angels (Luke 2:8-20). Both stories are about manifestation. There are similarities and differences between the two stories.
First, both stories tell us that there is only one God who unveils himself in only one way. That is the Incarnation. On the other hand, Matthew’s story involves wise men from the East, while shepherds participate in Luke’s story. These two groups of people made up with individuals in different situations. The wise men bring Jesus expensive gifts while the shepherds tell Mary what they heard from the angels. However, God manifests Him to people in all situations.
The wise men came afar while the shepherds happen to be close to where Jesus is born. What does this tell us? The incarnated God is the God for all of us regardless of distance. It also tell us, or to be proper in this solemnity to put it that it manifest to us that our God is the God for the learned and the innocent and the ignorant.
Both the shepherds and foreigners, such as the wise men from afar in today’s Gospel, are treated as marginal groups in the Jewish community. In other words, they are excluded from the mainstream community. However, God manifests to them and invites them to take part in the Incarnation that takes place in a manger in Bethlehem, which is a sacred space. For us today, every time that we turn to God when we feel to be excluded because of our faith, our moral values, our economic circumstances, our colour, our class, our status, it is an epiphany.
However, it is not necessary that every exclusion that we experience must be an epiphany. It is because that in both the Matthew’s story and that of Luke, the wise men and shepherds are invited to take part in the epiphany by a sign from heaven. For the wise men, it is the star and that for the shepherds is an angel.
It is legitimate for us to ask the question, “How can we know it is a sign from heaven inviting me to participate in an epiphany?” The answer is simply. We know that it is a sign from heaven if we can sense that it is not of our doing. It is just like what Jesus told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven (Matthew 16.17).”
On top of a sign from heaven, a true epiphany always entails joy within us when the heavenly sign is fulfilled. True Christianity is joy. That joy can even be felt in our suffering for God. The manifestation of joy in an epiphany is our thanksgiving and praise to God. The wise men are filled with delight when see the star while the shepherds glorify and praise God. Ask ourselves every time, “Am I rejoiced?” when we believe that it is an epiphany. Our feeling won’t betray us.
Having taken part in God’s Epiphany, we become so free that we can return to our daily lives with a free heart and total freedom in meeting with any situation. Amen.