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Shining with the Radiance of a King

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My Dear Friends in Christ,

Throughout the course of the Advent and Christmas Seasons, the Church has sought to teach us what it means for us that the Son of God has become the Son of Man. And up to this point, we have been rightly situated within a Jewish context, a point worth dwelling on momentarily. As we have seen, especially in our reflection on the great “O Antiphons” of Advent, the Church has always understood Jesus as the long-promised Messiah of the people God has chosen to call his own, the Jews. It was from this people that the Son of God became incarnate, part of the ancestral line of the great King David, and it was as a faithful Jewish son that Jesus lived his life. In fact, it is within the very person of Jesus that the story of the human family, and more specifically, the Jewish family found its perfection. For as true God and true man, within the very person of Jesus, faithful Israel meets its faithful God. Therefore, as Christians, if we are to understand our identity, we must recognize that our story is intimately connected to the story of the Jewish people; so much so that we could indeed say that the only way we may understand who we are is to understand who the Jewish people are, and more specifically why it was that God had chosen to establish such an intimate relationship with this people.

The celebration of Epiphany is, in many ways, a celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise to the nation of Israel. “Epiphany” literally means manifestation. In this case, what is referred to is God’s manifestation to the Gentiles (i.e., any non-Jewish people). However, this manifestation is not a simple showing or a declaration of existence. Instead, what is being manifested is the reality that as the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, has not only come to bring salvation to the Jewish people, as had been the anticipation of many in Israel. Rather, the salvation the Jewish Messiah brings is for the whole human family, Jew and Gentile alike. This is St. Paul’s message for us today. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that with the coming of Christ, the Holy Spirit has revealed “that the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). That said, the fact that this manifestation takes place within the Jewish family is not without significance.

Since the time of Abraham, the Hebrew people had lived in a covenantal relationship with God. To be sure, this meant that the Hebrew people had been specially chosen by God for this relationship and, by living in this relationship, had the privileged position of knowing the will of God for the human family in a manner unlike all the other nations of the earth. However, this privileged relationship was not simply for the sake of the Hebrew people, but for the whole human family. In other words, the Hebrew people had been chosen as God’s People not simply for their own sake, but for the sake of others. God makes this clear to Abraham when establishing the covenant with him. God had promised that in Abraham’s family, “all the nations of the earth will find blessing” (Genesis 22:18, cf. Gen. 12:1-3). The Incarnation is the fulfillment of such a promise. For the one born to the Jewish maiden, Mary, is the one who would reunite the whole human family to its Creator, bringing to them the potential of experiencing life to its full, i.e., life in communion with God. The fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that the whole human family would find blessing through his descendants is thus fulfilled today, when “caravans of camels” come to Jerusalem, “dromedaries from Midian and Epha; all from Sheba” come “bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord,” the King and Messiah of Israel (Isaiah 60:6).   

Thus, while many in the past and today understand the establishment of the Christian community as usurping or superseding God’s covenant with the Jewish people, today’s celebration demonstrates to us that it is we who are being drawn into the drama of the life of the Jewish family that had been taking place between them and God for centuries. We find this message forcefully proclaimed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. There, speaking of the Gentiles as wild olive shoots grafted onto the life-giving root that once established and gave life to the People of Israel, Paul says:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place and have come to share in the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you do boast, consider that you do not support the root; the root supports you (Romans 11:17-18).

Ultimately, Paul tells us, the reason for God grafting the wild Gentile branches onto His family tree is not to replace the Jewish people, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), but to draw the attention of the entire human family to the saving power of God’s loving mercy, that by virtue of the mercy shown to us, all nations, Jew and Gentile, might be incorporated into the saving unity of the Family of God (Romans 11:31; cf. Galatians 3:28).  

That all the nations would one day be incorporated into the same type of relationship Israel uniquely enjoyed was told by the prophets long before the appearance of the Magi in Bethlehem. This is a theme which finds great prominence in the latter part of the book of Isaiah, as we see in our first reading for today. There we find the prophet foretell that the ‘glory of God will dawn in Israel,’ such that the nations would not merely take note of this splendid light, but be drawn to it. Thus, the prophet says “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you—Your sons from afar, your daughters in the arms of their nurses” (Isaiah 60:4). Notice the language here. It is not as if some foreign people would arrive in Jerusalem, but instead what is depicted is more akin to a family reunion, and to be sure it is. For the Radiant Dawn of God’s glory is the incarnation of his Son, who comes to heal the brokenness of the human family, uniting all to one another by reuniting them with their Creator. We are told that this unity between creation and Creator will be characterized by worship, a depiction given clearer enunciation at the very end of Isaiah where the prophet foretells that one day “All flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (Isaiah 66:23). Thus, we can see that when God’s salvation comes to the Jewish people, it will have a spectacular quality which will draw all the families on the earth into their very midst in order to join them in the worship of the one, true God. Moreover, it is important to note, that while this salvation will have a spectacular dimension, those who are exposed to it will not simply remain spectators, but will instead be transformed into participants of what it is that they see. It is for this reason that Isaiah writes that the nations will ‘walk by the light of the people,’ and that they “shall see and be radiant” (Isaiah 60:3 & 5).

We can see the arrival of the Magi to worship at the crib of the infant Jesus as the beginnings of the fulfillment of this prophecy, and the Magi themselves as the “first fruits of the Gentiles”, as Augustine says (Sermon 202.1). We are not told much in the way of historical and cultural background of these mysterious men in Matthew’s text. Instead, the identity they are given in Matthew’s Gospel cuts to the core of their being. These men were religious seekers. On the lookout for a divine revelation, they arrived in Jerusalem seeking the newborn king of the Jews, having seen his “star at its rising” (Matthew 2:2). In this, therefore, the actions of the Magi are revelatory twice over. First, their searching for a divine revelation, a message from the heavens, speaks to the natural desire of the human heart for relationship with its God. Second, their very arrival in Jerusalem to worship the newborn King of the Jews bolsters the above claim that at Epiphany we celebrate our incorporation, as non-Jews, into the drama of Israel (cf. Isaiah 60:6). We see this in the fact that, though the Magi have obviously spotted and decided to pursue this star based on what they determined it to signify, as they reached the end of their journey, these men asked the Jewish people (represented by the Jewish King Herod first, who in turn asked the chief priests and scribes) where it was that their king would appear (Matthew 2:1-4).

Once the Magi arrive at the altar crib, they, of course, offer their gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). These gifts simultaneously speak volumes regarding the identify of newborn King of the Jews and the transformation that takes place within the lives of those who worship Him rightly and the accompanying mission their worshipping communion bestows upon them. Through the message of the angel Gabriel to Mary, we have already been told that this newborn “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” (Luke 1:32-33) thus situating us within the story of Israel as mentioned above. If we couple this message of the angel Gabriel with the message received by Joseph through an angel, we find that this kingdom will be everlasting because this child embodies and brings the presence of God within his very person. As the angel tells Joseph, the son that Mary will bear shall be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us (Matthew 1:23). The gifts offered by the Magi give further clues as to how it is that this Son of the Most High will establish his kingdom and remain with us forever.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are obviously not ordinary gifts, which should prompt us to interrogate their deeper meaning. We sing of the deeper meaning of these gifts every Christmas Season in the song, “We Three Kings.” In verses 2 through 3, we sing of the gifts individually. Then, in the final verse we are given a brief summary of the meaning of these gifts when we sing: “Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.” The gifts correspond to one of these titles for the newborn babe: gold for a King; frankincense for a God; and myrrh for one who was to die.

Without too much trouble, we may parallel these gifts to the three-fold office of Christ. He is Priest, who offers his very self as sacrifice. H is Prophet, who as the very Word of God is at once himself God and relates to creation all that God has to say. And he is King, now reigning within the midst of his people through his very presence. It is the Incarnation which makes these offices possible, giving him a body through which to relate to the human family (prophet) and to offer as sacrifice in order that God may be reunited with his creation (priest) in an intimate way, not making demands from afar, but establishing and demonstrating the order of love in the very midst of his people and in a way to which they can easily relate (king). What’s more, because of the loving action of this king, we not only bear witness to his great work, but through his person are incorporated into this dynamic of love between the human family and its Creator. From our end, this dynamic, as has been said, takes on the quality of worship, as foretold by Isaiah and demonstrated by the Magi, who “prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11).

When we come before the altar throne of the newborn King in right worship as the Magi once did, our lives are transformed, taking on a revelatory power analogous to the gifts of the Magi. As creatures created in the image and likeness of God, our lives only take on their full meaning through participation in the divine life. And, through participation in the Divine Life via a life of worship (Romans 12:1), each of us is transfigured such that we reveal something completely unique about the God who once called us into being out of Love and in the fullness of time sent His Son in order that we might forever enjoy the fullness of that Love. Fr. David Meconi wonderfully describes the unique revelatory power each life transformed by union with God takes on:

This is why each of our lives matter ultimately and eternally. Only I could have lived this life God gave me; only I could have had influence on these people, at this address, and during these decades. My life, my family, my circle of friends, and so on—only I could have been that husband or wife, father or mother, confidant or colleague to them, and that is why the Lord created me when and as he did. To be mindful of this is to increase our awareness of the incessant providence of God, while also coming to recognize very concretely and particularly the purpose of my unique existence” (Christ Alive in Me: Living as a Member of the Mystical Body, 34).

My friends, the message that God relates to us through the prophet Isaiah and the Magi this weekend is ultimately this: that the coming of the Messiah brings salvation for the entire human family, “and, when he appeared in our mortal nature,” God the Father “made us new by the glory of his immortal nature” (Preface for the Epiphany of the Lord, St. Paul Daily Missal, 886). For this reason, the prophet says that ‘we shall see and be radiant’ (Is. 60:5), because once we are properly directed to and united with our God, we become fully alive and shine with the glory of His presence. However, just as the Hebrew People were once drawn into a covenantal relationship with God not only for their sake, but for the good of the whole human family, so too we have been grafted into this family not only for our own sake but for the life of the world. Thus, life-giving communion with God always comes with a mission, specifically participation in the salvific mission of the Son as members of His Body, the Church. If we are to play our own unique role in this salvific mission, however, we must allow ourselves to be transformed by our encounter with Christ today and every day. This is what is signified by our being told that the Magi left by a different route than the one they had come by. St. Augustine puts it this way:

We too, by acknowledging and praising Christ, as both king and priest and the one who died for us, have as it were honored him with gold and frankincense and myrrh. It only remains for us to spread the good news about him, by pursuing a new way, not returning by the way we came” (Sermon 202.4).

No one can truly encounter Christ and go away unchanged. Today, we celebrate this reality. The God Who has become one with us has done so that we might be brought out of the darkness of death into the glorious Light of His Divine Life so that His Light might shine within us, thereby drawing all to saving communion with God! This is precisely what the Church bestows Her blessing upon us to accomplish this day:

And since in all confidence you follow Christ, who today appeared in the world as a light shining in darkness, may God make you, too, a light for your brothers and sisters. (Solemn Blessing for The Epiphany of the Lord, St. Paul Daily Missal, 934).

Amen.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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