By way of introduction to today’s celebration of the Epiphany, I ask you to recall the name of that once popular wrapping called cellophane, which appears to have taken second place to Saran Wrap.
The “p-h-a-n-e” in cellophane is the same as the “p-h-a-n” in Epiphany — they both mean “to see through” or “to make visible.”
In a word, that’s what we are celebrating today: our coming somehow to see that in the person of this Jesus of Nazareth God is being revealed to the world as never before or since.
With that in mind, let us pray.
I once knew a man whom I never heard make any reference to God and who never went to church. But I consistently saw in him qualities of human goodness that could be called only extraordinary, the stuff that saints are made of. Even though there was no sign that he was aware of it, his life was a powerful sermon because it was exactly the kind of joyful, unselfish, simple, charitable behavior that Jesus taught and lived himself. The good man was one of those voices God used to teach me and a lot of other people I know.
It is true that pagans and atheists and heretics are often effective instruments by way of which God’s word reaches us humans. But who are we to dictate how and from whom God’s truth should come to us? Perhaps there are Magi, of a sort, in our own lives whom we have turned away and have not recognized and have condemned or ridiculed out of hand. We called them ”secular” or “pagan” or “radicals” or just plain “crazy.” It never occurred to us, or we could not bring ourselves to allow, that they might have seen and heard God where we did not.
Mary and Joseph apparently welcomed their visitors. And so it should be with us: that we welcome with eager anticipation all who come to us in sincerity and in search of truth, that we remain open to the truth they may be bringing into our lives. With the Spirit of God guiding us, we shall know the Lord better if we simply look and listen.
We must leave to scholars the essential meaning of today’s ancient fable, still revered after so many centuries, even while more & more discerning people recognize it is as precisely that — a wonderful and enduring fable, not to be taken literally. My own limited understanding of it is that it celebrates the truth that Jesus was recognized as the long-hoped-for Messiah even by persons who had no connection with the established religion of the time. The wise men, as they were called, were astrologers who studied the movement of the stars, not the history of God’s revelation to humanity. Their journey to the stable of his birth was not only unorthodox but not even respectable in many people’s eyes. However, so the story goes, they recognized him for who and what he was and paid him the homage reserved for kings.
And then, I suppose we must assume as the logical conclusion of the story, they went back to their own country as missionaries of the Christ. What could they have reported back home except their own deep conviction that in this birth God had entered human history in such a way that humanity would never be the same again.
We’ve got to keep in mind always when reading the Gospels that they are documents of faith — enthusiastic outpourings of the joyful faith of people who had experienced Jesus. They are not biographies or histories. They are human expressions rather than scientific descriptions. We believers have to look beyond the words and details to discover the real message, the truth to which the entire document attests.
In the minds of those who had known him and had witnessed the events of his extraordinary life, there was no doubt that he was indeed the One sent by God to restore human life and dignity. I think you would agree that with all the confusing uncertainties we live with, we often need that reassurance.
Today it’s given to us again by means of a charming story that even little children love hearing.