Epiphany Isaiah 60: 1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Gift of the Magi The gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold point to Jesus’ humanity, divinity, and kingship.
William Sydney Porter was an American short-story writer who lived at the turn of the century. His better known to us by his pen name, O. Henry. He is especially remembered for the surprise endings he gave to his stories.
One of his best-known stories takes its name from today’s feast. It is called “The Gift of the Magi.” The story concerns a young married couple named Jim and Dela. They are poor but much in love with each other.
As Christmas approaches, Dela wonders what to get Jim for Christmas. She would like to give him a watch chain for his gold watch, but she doesn’t have enough money. Then she gets an idea. She has beautiful long hair. She decides to cut off her hair and sell it to buy the chain for Jim’s watch.
On Christmas Eve she is returning home. In her hand is a beautiful box containing a gold chain which she has purchased with her hair. Suddenly Dela begins to worry. She knows Jim admired her long hair, and she wonders if he will be disappointed that she cut it and sold it. Only time will tell.
Dela climbs the final flight of stairs leading to their tiny apartment. She unlocks the door and finds Jim waiting. In his hand is a neatly wrapped box containing the gift he has purchased for her.
When Jim sees Dela’s short hair, tears begin to form in his eyes.
But he says nothing. He chokes back the tears and gives her the box.
When Dela opens it, she can’t believe what she sees. There in the box is a set of beautiful combs for her long hair.
And when Jim opens his gift, he too can hardly believe his eyes. There inside the box is a beautiful chain for his gold watch. Only then does Dela realize that Jim sold his gold watch to buy the combs for her hair.
Some people think the surprise ending of the story is tragic. But most people consider it beautiful. What makes it beautiful is not the gifts, but the love that the gifts symbolize.
And that brings us to our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, also called the Feast of the Magi.
I’m not sure why O. Henry called his story “The Gift of the Magi.” Maybe it was because the gifts of the Magi were also filled with deep symbolism.
Let’s begin with myrrh. Among ancient peoples, myrrh was used to prepare the dead for burial. For example, the women brought myrrh to the tomb of Jesus. Because of myrrh’s relationship with death, it made an ideal symbol of human vulnerability.
The gift of myrrh, therefore, is symbolic of the humanity of Jesus. It speaks to us of Jesus’ human vulnerability. Like us, he experienced the whole range of human emotions: joy, sorrow, fear, frustration, loneliness. He was like us in everything but sin.
This brings us to frankincense.
Ancient peoples used incense in their religious worship.
The aroma and smoke, spiraling upward to heaven, spoke to them of gods and divinity. The gift of incense, therefore, is symbolic of the divinity of Jesus. It tells us, in Paul’s words to the Philippians:
“[Jesus] always had the nature of God, . . . He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above.” Philippians 2:6–9
Finally, there is gold.
Among the ancient peoples, gold was regarded as the king of metals. It was, therefore, the ideal gift for a king.
A king was, above all, a leader. The ideal king led by love. He undertook noble causes for his people. He inspired others to join him in his causes. Jesus was such a king. He led by love. He undertook the noble cause of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. And he inspired others to join him in his work.
And this brings us to the practical message of the Feast of the Epiphany.
In many nations today, the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated with greater solemnity than Christmas.
This is because it celebrates Jesus’ manifestation of himself to the Gentile world. Just as Christmas celebrates so Epiphany celebrates the special manifestation to the Gentiles. It is, therefore, the “feast of the nations.”
What was begun by Jesus in his time must be continued by us in our time. If Jesus is to be made known to all nations, it must be through our efforts.
We must carry to the nations of the world the “good news” that Jesus, the Son of God, took flesh and lived among us.
We must tell them that Jesus entered history not just for the Jews of his time, but for all nations of all time.
Jesus came to set up God’s kingdom on earth. He came to set up a new world, one in which there would be no more grief, no more pain, no more sorrow—one in which the needy man and the needy woman would find loving friends, where before they found only cold strangers.
This is the “good news: that we must carry into the world. This is the practical message of the Feast of the Epiphany. It is a message that calls each of us to action.
Let’s close with these words. Written by an unknown poet, they sum up in vivid imagery the practical message of the Epiphany:
“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, the work of Christmas begins:
“to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoners, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music in the heart.”
Series II Epiphany Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Star in the Darkness We need “stars’’ to guide us, and we can be “stars’’ to guide others. For Christmas of 1987, news reporter Steven Barrie wrote a beautiful story about Tony Melendez. You may remember it. Newspapers across the country carried it.
Tony is the young man from Chino, California, who was born without arms. He received national publicity by playing the guitar with his feet for Pope John Paul II during the Holy Father’s visit to Los Angeles.
The pope was so moved by Tony’s faith and courage that he left the stage, wrapped his arms around Tony’s armless body, and kissed him.
Ever since that moment, Tony’s life has changed drastically. He has been invited to play for audiences across the country. He has appeared on national television. He’s now recording his music. And the Reader’s Digest carried a condensed version of his life story in the book section of its June 1989 issue.
Tony’s victory over his handicap and his new celebrity status have cast him into the role of being a spokesman for handicapped people.
“It’s scary, very scary,’’ he says. “It’s something I have to pray over. I figure God’s doing this for some reason. He’s got some special mission for me.’’
As we read Barrie’s story about Tony, we may ask ourselves, Why did Barrie write it at Christmastime?
After thinking about the question for a minute, the reason dawns on us. It’s because Tony’s story is a Christmas story. Or rather, it’s an Epiphany story. It’s a story about the feast that we celebrate today.
It’s a story of someone who lights up the darkness of our world the way the star of Bethlehem lit up the darkness of the ancient world for the three wise men.
Tony’s deep faith and courage are a modern star of Bethlehem for people in the darkness of our modern world.
People are attracted to the light of Tony’s faith the way the wise men were attracted to the light of the star.
Tony’s story makes an important point.
If many people today are to find their way through the spiritual darkness of our world to the infant lying in the manger, it will have to be through the faith and example of people like Tony.
For their faith and example speak more eloquently to most people than do homilies preached in churches. For they speak not only to the mind but also to the heart.
Furthermore, they also reach people who have stopped going to church. And this brings us to the practical application of all this to our own lives.
Each one of us in this church, without exception, is handicapped to some extent.
We all have something that causes us pain, something we wish we didn’t have, something we wish we could get rid of.
Maybe it’s a family situation that is terribly painful.
Maybe it’s a physical thing, like having an allergy or being very short.
Maybe it’s a spiritual thing, like finding it hard to live the way Jesus taught us we should. Maybe it’s finding it hard to pray the way we wish we could.
Maybe it’s a material thing, like not having enough money to help others the way we’d like to do.
Whatever it is, we have a choice. We can choose to let our handicap defeat us. Or we can choose to battle it and defeat it, as Tony did.
Christmas is a time of hope. The infant lying there in the manger tells us that nothing can defeat us any longer.
No handicap—physical or spiritual—can conquer us. Thanks to the infant lying there in the manger, we have all the grace we need to battle our handicap and defeat it. And if we do battle our handicap and defeat it, not only will we win a great personal victory, but we will also become an inspiration to others.
We will become a modern star of Bethlehem lighting the way for some lost traveler. We will become a light shining in the darkness and pointing the way to the infant lying in the manger.
And so it’s up to us! It’s our choice!
People like Tony can touch our hearts and inspire us. But in the end, it’s up to us to imitate them or not.
But if we choose, we can do it. No one can stop us.
That’s the message of the star of Bethlehem. That’s the message of the infant lying in the manger. We can do anything we wish. Nothing can stop us.
It’s the message that if we open our hearts to God’s grace, we can become modern stars shining in our world, leading others to Bethlehem.
This is the good news contained in Tony’s story.
This is the good news contained in today’s readings.
This is the good news we celebrate together in today’s liturgy.
Let’s close with a prayer: Lord Jesus, help us open our hearts to the light of the star of Bethlehem. Help us let it shine through us in such a way that everyone we meet will realize that it’s not our light but your light shining through us.
Then we will praise you in the way you love best, by being a living homily that speaks not only to the mind but also to the heart.
Then we will be a modern star, pointing the way to Bethlehem.
Series III Epiphany Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Christian calling To be “stars” or “sparks of light” pointing to Jesus.
We saw his star, and . . .have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1–2
William James was a famous American psychologist. He wrote a ground-breaking book called Varieties of Religious Experience.
One story in the book is about a man who lived in a rural area. One summer night he went for a long walk across a field. He ended up on a hilltop. As he stood there gazing at the starry sky, something amazing happened inside him. The nearest he could describe it was to say that it was like music, swelling up inside him and filling his soul to the point that he thought it would explode.
Then, with every fiber of his being, he felt a mysterious presence engulf him. He said later:
I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was there. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.
The man said that hilltop experience blessed him with the strongest faith and truest idea of God that he’d ever experienced in his life.
Whether the man’s experience was merely a beautiful coincidence, or whether it was one of those rare, divine surprises that only angels can explain, neither you, nor I, nor the man on the hilltop will ever know.
This much we do know, however. His story makes a beautiful illustration of what the feast of the Epiphany is all about.
The word epiphany means a manifestation of God’s presence in our midst.
The feast of the Epiphany celebrates a manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus, not just to the Jewish world, but also to all the world, both Jews and non-Jews. This brings us to the story of the magi in today’s Gospel.
Actually, the magi were not kings; they were the advisors to kings. They were scholars who studied the stars and things of that sort.
When they saw the new star in the sky, they reasoned that it might signal the birth of some great new king. So they set out to investigate. The rest of the story we all know.
This brings us to our personal response to the feast of the Epiphany.
How ought we to respond to it in a practical way in our lives?
Perhaps the best way to begin is to say that many people today struggle with their faith. They hunger for some sort of an epiphany or religious experience, like the one experienced by the man on the hilltop.
It is in this sense that Jesus intended his followers to be a kind of epiphany for other people. He said to his disciples:
“Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
Saint Paul expressed the same idea. Writing to the Christians of Philippi, he said: “You must shine among them like stars lighting up the sky.” Philippians 2:15
More recently Pope John XXIII said, “Every believer must become a spark of light.”
And so using the imagery of the magi story, each Christian is called to become a star. Every Christian is called to be a spark of light amidst the darkness of our world. Every Christian is called to be an “epiphany,” pointing the way to Jesus.
How do we do this? How do we become a star or spark of light in the darkness of today’s world?
The answer is simple, but difficult. We do this by living according to the teachings of Jesus. In other words, we let Jesus, the Light of the World, shine through us by doing his will.
What does this mean in practical terms?
It means that every time we forgive someone who has treated us wrongly, a star lights up the darkness of our world, pointing the way to Jesus.
It means that every time we open the door of our heart to the least, the lost, or the lonely, a star lights up the darkness in our world and points the way to Jesus.
It means that every time we treat those about us with gentleness and kindness, a star shines through the darkness and points the way to Jesus. It means that every time we resist the temptation to live by worldly values rather than Christian values, a star shines through the darkness and points the way to Jesus.
This is what the feast of the Epiphany is all about.
It’s about living according to the teachings of Jesus, and letting the light of Jesus shine through our lives into our world.
It’s about becoming a star or spark of light in the darkness of our world, so that modern magi may find their way to Jesus.
This is the good news we celebrate on this feast of the Epiphany.
This is the good news contained in today’s Gospel.
It is the good news that by following Jesus and living according to his teaching, we can find our way to Bethlehem and help others find their way, also.
Let us close with a meditation by Howard Thurman.
It sums up the response Jesus is inviting us to make beginning tomorrow morning as we begin our journey into the New Year. He writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins:
to feed the hungry, to release the prisoners, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music with the heart.