EPIPHANY OF THE LORD

Is 60:1-6; Eph 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2: 1-12

You do know what would have happened if it had been three wise WOMEN instead of men, don’t you? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought disposable diapers as gifts!

The visit of the wise men can be looked on as a symbol for our pilgrimage through life to Christ. The feast invites us to see ourselves as images of the Magi, a people on a journey to Christ. Today’s Gospel also tells us the story of the Magi’s encounter with the evil King Herod. This encounter symbolizes three reactions to Jesus’ birth: hatred, indifference, and adoration. a) A group of people headed by Herod planned to destroy Jesus. b) Another group, composed of priests and scribes, ignored Jesus. c) The members of a third group — shepherds and the magi — adored Jesus and offered themselves to Him. Let us ask ourselves to which of these groups do we belong to?

When we focus on the wise men, the theme of the gospel is about searching, finding, and the giving of gifts. These themes, however, are not the deepest truth of today’s feast. To find that truth we must not look at what the wise men do, but at what Jesus does. And what does Jesus do? He receives the gifts that the wise men offer. This action is arguably the first action of Jesus ever recorded in the gospels: to accept the gifts that are given. It is an action of profound significance, because it is an illustration of what is most fundamental about the Christian life: that being a Christian is not about what we do, but what we accept; it is not about giving but about receiving.

Now this is a difficult lesson for us to learn because we persist in the misconception that our faith is primarily about us, about what we do or what we fail to do. But our faith is not primarily about what we do, but rather about what God does. God has made us and saved us. God’s actions are the actions that are at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, the stance of a Christian is primarily a stance of openness, a stance of receptivity. It is only when we can receive the gift that God offers that we know what salvation is truly about.

So what is it that we are called to receive? The three gifts help here—gold, frankincense, myrrh—value, mystery, pain. The first gift is the gift of gold, a gift of great value and worth. It points to the value and worth of our own lives. We are persons of great worth. God has made us so. God has instilled in us a dignity that is a part of who we are. That dignity is nothing we can earn and nothing that we can lose by failure or sin. We are called, then, to believe in our worth and dignity even when we doubt ourselves, even when we mess things up. The value and worth of our own being is the first gift that God gives us. We must be willing to receive it, if we are to be followers of Christ.

The gift of frankincense is a mysterious perfume, and it points to the mysterious action of God in our lives. God has a plan. God has a plan for us and for the world. God is always working to unfold that plan through all the relationships and opportunities of our lives. Our life is much more than the decisions we make, the plans that we form. Beneath our actions and our decisions is the mysterious impulse of God, blessing us, changing us, leading us forward. It is a mystery we cannot control. We can only accept it and cooperate with it. That mysterious presence of God’s loving action in our life is the second gift which God offers us. We must receive it, if we are to understand the gospel.

Myrrh is the ointment of death, and it points to the unavoidable pain which is a part of all of our lives. None of us can avoid evil or pain, whether that comes from hurt, rejection, failure, sickness, or grief. But in faith we believe that such pain, as real and as deep as it is, cannot negate our worth and dignity as people. Nor can it frustrate or derail the mysterious plan of God that somehow moves forward despite all that opposes it. Pain in our life is unavoidable, but the reality of that pain need not destroy us. Believing that God’s plan will succeed even in the presence of pain is the third gift that God offers us. We must be willing to receive it, if we are to understand the gospel.

Being a faithful Christian is not about doing. It is about receiving. This is why the first action of Jesus in the gospels is to receive the gifts of the wise men. Jesus receives gold, frankincense, and myrrh to remind us that we need to receive the value of our own person, the mystery of God’s action in our life, and the reality that pain and evil cannot stop the plan of God. Those are three gifts we need to receive, for it is only by accepting them that we can follow Christ and fulfill the promise of Christmas.

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