Receiving our Epiphany

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Christmas Season continues this Sunday with the Feast of the Epiphany. The word epiphany means a revelation or manifestation. Both the magi and King Herod have Christ revealed to them in this Sunday’s gospel reading, but they respond to this revelation in very different ways. How do we receive the epiphany of the Lord in our own lives? That’s what we reflect on in this week’s video!

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Following the Light

The Epiphany of the Lord

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“We saw the star at its rising, and have come to do Him homage” (Mt 2:2). So said the wise men to King Herod when they arrived in Jerusalem, seeking the newborn king. Who were these wise men? The gospels refer to them as magi, and tell us they came from the east. Historians have speculated as to their identity. Tradition even gives them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.  But all we really know about them is that they saw a light, and they followed it to Christ. For this, they are called wise.

Jesus said of Himself, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). It is fitting that a star, source of physical light, would herald the arrival of Jesus, the source of spiritual light. Isaiah, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, proclaims, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come” (Is 60:1).

Jesus is often associated with light in the scriptures and in the prayers of the liturgy. John’s gospel calls Jesus a “light shining in the darkness” (Jn 1:5). During the Easter Vigil liturgy we proclaim Lumen Christi, “Christ our Light!” as the Paschal candle is brought into the church.  Every Sunday when we profess our creed, we declare Jesus to be “light from light.”

Without light our eyes couldn’t function. Light allows us to see the world. It makes it possible for us to perceive our surroundings and our place within them. Light allows us to see each other, and to see ourselves.

This is why light has always been used as a symbol for knowledge and wisdom. When we finally understand something that we didn’t before, we say we have been enlightened. Even in cartoons, when a character has an idea, it’s depicted with a little light bulb over his head. Knowledge is associated with light because it allows us to see, if not with our physical eye, with the eye of our mind. This is why we express our understanding of a truth by saying, “I see!”

The coming of Christ is the dawn of a new day of creation — an eighth day — with a new sun rising, casting its illuminating light over a world that had for so long been shrouded in the darkness of sin and death. This is one of the reasons why Christian churches were traditionally constructed so that the people worshiped facing east, the direction of the rising sun. Just as the light of the sun defeats the darkness of night, so the light of the Son of God defeats the darkness of sin and death.

Once you begin to look at the world by Christ’s light, everything changes. C. S. Lewis describes it this way. He says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Light reveals truth. And this is what Jesus Christ does. This is what we celebrate with the Feast of the Epiphany, that name coming from the Greek word epiphanien, which means “reveal.” We celebrate the fact that in Christ God has fully revealed Himself, to Jew and Gentile alike. God’s light shines on the whole world. By His light we see God and we see ourselves. By His light we understand who we are and how we are to live. By His light we know mercy and justice, love and compassion, virtue and honor, goodness and beauty. All of this is revealed to us by the divine light of Christ.

We can shut our eyes to the light if we want to. We can block it from our view, and sit in the dark, if we prefer. But the light will still be there. It can never be extinguished. Only a fool would think he could extinguish the sun by drawing the curtains closed. He doesn’t hide the light; he only hides himself from it.

Let us not be foolish. Let us be wise; like the wise men who saw a light shining in the dark sky, and had conviction enough to rise up and follow it. Let us follow that light to Christ. Let us bow down and do Him homage, open up our treasures and offer Him our gifts. Let Jesus Christ, the light of the world, enlighten you this day.


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The King Made Manifest

The Epiphany of the Lord

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Epiphany represents the climax of the Christmas season. It recalls the time when wise sages from the east came to Bethlehem to adore a newborn king. It is an image remembered in songs and on Christmas cards, but do we really understand its meaning?
The only time we hear the word “epiphany” used outside of the Christmas season is when someone has a breakthrough idea. They have a moment of clarity that suddenly allows them to see a solution to a problem, or that reveals up a new way of seeing the world. Their eyes open wide and they cry out, “I’ve had an epiphany!”
An epiphany is more than a good idea. It’s an eye-opening understanding. It’s like having cataracts removed and seeing the world clearly for the first time. A synonym for “epiphany” is “manifest.” To manifest something is to reveal it — to make known what was hidden. When we read the origin story of a superhero, it’s usually about the first manifestation of his or her powers. Through this manifestation they discover who they really are, as does the world.
Epiphany is the manifestation of the greatest superpower the world has ever known – Christ’s unstoppable love for us. God desired so much to reconcile sinners that He came to be with us in person. Christ is the manifestation of God in the flesh.
We can think of Christmas as the manifestation of Christ to the Jewish people. For nine months since the annunciation of the angel to Mary, the Divine Son of God remained concealed in His mother’s womb. It was not until Christmas day that His presence was announced to Jewish shepherds by choirs of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”
But the manifestation of Christ does not stop at Christmas. Jesus came to the Jewish people, but He did not come only for the Jewish people. Christ came to redeem the whole world, which is why the feast of Epiphany is so important. On this feast we celebrate the fact that Gentile sages came to worship a Jewish baby who was King of the Universe. Their epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world.
There is a popular phrase that circulates during the Christmas season: “Wise men still seek Him.” This is true. We call these eastern sages “wise” because they were seekers of the truth. They sought the truth in the stars and something they saw in the sky at the time of Christ’s birth led them to seek out a newborn King in Judea. They discovered the truth, and they followed where it led.
We are called today to be wise men and women. We are called to seek the truth. We seek it in religion. We seek it in science. We seek it in philosophy. We seek it in our lived human experience. All truth reveals to us — if we have eyes to see — the one who is Truth, Christ our God. May we have the courage of the magi to leave our comfort zones behind and follow where the Truth leads us; all the way to the manger, all the way to the cross.
By following the Truth as disciples of Christ, we continue to make Him manifest in the world. By living a life united to Him, we make Jesus manifest in our lives. We make Christ manifest in our relationship with others, in how we love our neighbors, care for the poor and sick, and lead others in virtue. As our celebration of Christmas draws to a close, let us pray that Christ be made more and more manifest in our hearts each day throughout the coming year.
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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

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The feast of the Epiphany celebrates an event rich in theological significance.  The arrival of the magi from the east to worship Christ demonstrates that Jesus is not only King of the Jews but King of us all. Even the Gentile world rejoices at the birth of Christ.

Some doubt whether this theological event was an historical event.  Was this perhaps just a story Matthew created to make a point about the universality of Jesus’ reign?  Those who claim that it never happened have only their suspicion as evidence, centered mainly around doubts as to the existence of the star the wise men followed on their journey.

What was the star of Bethlehem?  Some theologians maintain that it was a miracle — no other explanation is needed.  Certainly this could be the case.  The idea that God would miraculously create a star to lead the magi to Jesus is no more difficult to believe than the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth.

Nevertheless, others have looked for a scientific explanation for the star of Bethlehem.  People have suggested everything from comets to a super nova in an attempt to find an explanation.  The most likely explanation is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces which occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth.  We don’t need to go into detail, but the cultural meaning that these planets had to the Babylonians would have suggested the birth of a powerful king in the land of the Jews.  Furthermore, such an astronomical conjunction would have only been noticed by astronomer sages looking to the sky for such signs.  This would explain why the star would have led the magi to the Christ-child while going completely unnoticed by King Herod and others.

So it is certainly plausible that the star of Bethlehem was a natural phenomenon.  But saying that there may have been nothing miraculous about the star is not to say that it was not caused by God.  There is an unfortunate assumption today that science and religion must be at odds: that faith in God is only necessary to explain the explainable, and that once we discover the natural cause God becomes unnecessary.

This conflict between faith and science (and in particular the Catholic Church and science) is largely fabricated.  The silliness of the supposed conflict between the Christian faith and science can be illustrated with an example.  Suppose I were to spend months disassembling a car and studying its parts until I knew absolutely everything about how it worked.  Would this in any way disprove that the car was designed and assembled by a team of engineers and auto-workers?  Of course not.  Going even further, suppose I proved that the car was not in fact assembled by people, but by automated machines.  Would this disprove that the car was created by men, or would it only suggest that the machines were created by men for the purpose of making the car?

In a like way, even if we knew everything about how the universe works down to the smallest sub-atomic particle, it would in no way disprove that the universe — with all of its physical laws — was created by God.  It would only help us understand more about God’s creation and our place in it.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, writes:

If the wise men, led by the star to search for the king of the Jews, represent the movement of the Gentiles toward Christ, this implies that the cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state.  The language of creation provides a great many pointers.  It gives man an intuition of the Creator.  Moreover, it arouses the expectation, indeed the hope, that this God will one day reveal Himself.  And at the same time it elicits an awareness that man can and should approach Him.

Ancient man believed that the stars controlled our destiny.  This is why they named the stars and planets after gods.  But the stars which foretold the birth of Christ were not controlling His destiny –Christ was controlling the stars, as He has from the beginning of all creation.  How marvelous to contemplate that from the first moment of the Big Bang, natural laws were set into motion that would lead the sky itself to herald the arrival of the Creator into His Creation.  “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:2).

The Creator of the world has taken on human nature in Christ, and so through Christ humankind is elevated.  The eastern Church speaks of this as divinization, man being made like God.  The western Church calls it sanctification, or being made holy.  In either case, the next time you gaze upon the night sky, remember this thought: God humbled Himself to be born of a virgin so that we may be made higher than the stars.

The Helix Nebula, image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  Source Reddit.

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Gospel For Today – Epiphany


The following was originally written for Epiphany 2014.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.”  So what does the word “manifest” mean?  Manifest means “to make known.”  Today we celebrate the great solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, considered to be the apex of the Christmas season.  In what way today is the Lord made known?

One would think that the manifestation of the Lord would be considered His birth, which we celebrated on Dec. 25.  This is the day when we celebrate His arrival on the human scene, when we welcome Emmanuel, God-with-us, into our midst.  Did that not complete the great incarnational event that began when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a son by the Holy Spirit?
In a way yes, but in a way no.  While at the Nativity we celebrate the birth of Christ and His arrival to the Jewish people, that is by no means the whole story.  For while it is true that Christ, the Messiah, came to the Jews, He did not come only for the Jews.  In our first reading today from Isaiah, the prophet says, “Rise up in splendor Jerusalem, your light has come!”  But he continues, “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”  Our psalm today proclaims, “all kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”  And our second reading from Ephesians tells us that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus.”  
This is what is unique about our Catholic faith – that it is catholic.  “Catholic” comes from the Greek meaning “of the whole.”  It is usually translated as “universal.” We call it the universal Church not only because she teaches universal truths, but that those truths and  the salvation they proclaim are meant for all peoples, of all lands, of all times.  There is not a single nation, tribe, clan, family or individual whom Christ did not come to redeem.  While Christ is the fulfillment of all that God promised to His chosen people, He is also the extension of that covenant to the whole world.  
The event we celebrate today with the arrival of the magi to pay homage and adore the infant Christ is the manifestation – the epiphany – of Jesus’ universal kingship.  Who were the magi?  The Bible is silent as to their names, but tradition gives them as Casper (Gaspar), Melchior and Balthasar.  The magi were eastern sages.  They were not Jews and there is no reason to believe that they were familiar with Jewish prophecy or scripture.  So why would they care about the birth of a baby boy to a young woman in a backwater Jewish province of no real political significance?
The magi were the priestly caste from Persia.  We sometimes refer to them as the “wise men” and that is important.  For even though there is no reason to believe they were exposed to Jewish traditions or prophecy they did seek out wisdom.  In their tradition, in the east, they sought wisdom from the stars.  And something they saw in the stars at that time told them that a great king had been born in Bethlehem.  And not just any king, but a universal king, such that even though He was born among Jews, these Persian sages felt compelled to make the long and dangerous journey to pay Him homage.  
Through the method of learning they looked to for truth and guidance – watching and reading the stars – they came to know the truth of Christ’s kingship.  They responded to that truth in the only way that seemed appropriate to them.  They desired to worship and adore the Lord.  The magi are considered to be the first fruits of the Gentiles and the beginning of the Christian faith, bringing in their wake the whole mass of earth’s people who would come to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.  They were not looking for a Messiah.  They did not know the prophecies of Isaiah.  But they were seeking the truth.
Like them, we today need to seek out truth.  Our minds were made for this task.  The Second Vatican Council affirms that God comes to those “who seek God with a sincere heart” (Lumen Gentium 16).  Even in non-Christian religions, we recognize “shadows and images” of God, elements of “goodness and truth” that are “a preparation for the Gospel” (CCC 843).  
These elements of truth can also be found in the physical sciences, where the open mind can discover signs pointing to the transcendent creator of this magnificent universe.  They can be found in the study  of history, where can be discovered accounts of the creator-God born among the Jewish people in Israel and working miracles, including His own Resurrection.  They can also be found in the lived experiences and examples of those around us who have allowed Christ to enter their lives and forever change them.
When we discover the truth, whoever we are and however it comes to us, there is only one proper response.  We need to do what the magi did.  We need to realize that in the light of this Truth, nothing can ever be the same.  We need to stop what we are doing – leaving behind our old lives if need be – and seek Him out.  A King has been born.  Come, let us worship.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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