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The Epiphany of the Lord

  • January 2, 2011
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’Epiphany’ means ’manifestation’, and today’s feast commemorates the appearance of the Lord to the world in the person of the three magi, the wise men from the East. It’s a feast rich in symbolism and meaning.

But first, the story, as Matthew tells it. In King Herod’s day, distinguished visitors from a foreign land come to pay homage to the Infant Jesus. From their deportment, they seem to be kings or magi, wise men.

There are two ways of reading the story. One way is to take things literally, and to seek historical references in every little detail. Did this episode really take place? Were the magi kings or astrologers? Were there three of them or more? From which country did they come? What was this mysterious star they kept following? Were Joseph and Mary still in Bethlehem and, if so, where were they living? How is it that King Herod, with all his spies, didn’t know where the messiah was to be born?

But the Gospel is not a news report, it is a faith statement. History is secondary; what is primary are the symbols of faith. We need to understand the rich symbols in the story.

All stories of Jesus’s birth speak of the Lord who reveals himself progressively; first to poor shepherds; next to the gentiles who ‘follow their star’; and finally at his baptism, as the servant of Yahweh who publicly accepts his mission in life.

The Gospel writer Matthew cleverly weaves this account of the Christ Child in which he is proclaimed as saviour of all mankind.

Yes, Jesus comes to save the whole world, the pagan world, not just the Jews. The gift of salvation is universal, not confined to localities or racial groups. Wherever men seek the Lord in truth and follow their star, they will be led to him and, in spite of every obstacle, find him.

The gifts offered to the Child are symbolic. For kingship – gold; for divinity – incense; and for mortality – myrrh.

The Christ whom the nations worship is God present among them; he is their ruler and shepherd. And being human, he shares their mortality as well.

Also, as in many similar myths, an evil king seeks to destroy the child but is thwarted. Other infants bear the brunt of the king’s anger and become the first martyrs. For the Child escapes to a safer country, from where he will emerge at the time of his choosing.

Thus, in the form of a story never to be forgotten, does Matthew present the perennial themes of salvation.
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