Homily: Epiphany


The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6
Matthew 2:1–12

As many of my friends know, I love watching movies. I especially love when movies have a surprise twist, like The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects, where you’re watching it, and near the end you realize… it dawns on you… that the whole story as you know it just got turned sideways, and you have to sort through all the pieces again and reinterpret everything, because you got a new piece of information that changes the meaning of everything, and it’s all going in a direction you never saw coming. There’s some happy brain chemical that gets dispensed to you when you have a sudden realization like that, and everything gets shifted, and you pick up on the shift, and all the pieces fall into place in a whole new and intriguing way. That realization is an example of an epiphany, when you experience an unveiling or manifesting of the truth. And the more pieces that were involved and came together in a new way, and the more important the discovery, the greater the thrill of the epiphany.

One of the things I love about Catholic theology is that everything means a whole bunch of things at the same time, and they’re all related in a whole bunch of ways, and when you’re reading or hearing something and it makes a new connection that you hadn’t thought of, you have that thrill of an epiphany. And we should be thrilled by our faith! Since these kinds of things make me excited about our faith, I try to share them in homilies, because I hope there’s a chance that they make you excited too. I want to do more than just give you the same old explanations. I want them to come alive for you with excitement, and life, and new understanding and insight. And then, because everyone’s lives are different, I leave it up to you to contemplate how the truth in the readings best applies to your own life, and your struggles, and your journey. 

The reason our celebration today is called the “Epiphany” is because it celebrates the unveiling, or the manifestation, of God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany is the celebration of three events. First, it celebrates the arrival of the magi, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory (as the Divine King) to the gentiles and the calling of all the nations to faith in Him. Second, it celebrates the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory in his mission as Messiah and as God’s beloved Son. And third, it celebrates the Wedding Feast of Cana, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory to his disciples, a story that ends by saying, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” So the Feast day of Epiphany celebrates the unveiling or revelation of Christ in glory to the world. We celebrate the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, and now Epiphany focuses specifically on the visit by the magi, which is what we heard in the gospel reading.

Who are the magi? They were wise men who studied the world to have universal understanding, and give good counsel based on their knowledge and their understanding of how the world works. They were people who paid attention to the details of the world, and the connections between them. They were scientist-philosopher-theologians (and maybe, but probably not kings). We get the idea that they were kings from prophecies in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah chapter 60, and Psalm 72. And not by coincidence, those are our First Reading and Responsorial Psalm for today!

Isaiah in our first reading gives joy to Jerusalem: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you… Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow… dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” So there we have a mention of kings, walking in the radiance of Jerusalem’s splendor, as well as caravans bringing gifts of gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”

Our Psalm sings, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” So here we see kings bringing gifts and paying homage to the King, the Son of David. Myrrh was a resin used in making medicines, ointments, and perfumes. Myrrh is mentioned in the Song of Songs as the Bride and Bridegroom prepare for their wedding. And it was part of the mixture of spices used in the rites of preparing a body for burial.

Related imageSo that, of course takes us to another point of our reading: the gifts. Matthew doesn’t say what the gifts mean, but scholars generally agree that gold represented Jesus as the great King. Frankincense, an incense used in the sanctuary, represented Jesus as High Priest, and the myrrh could mean that Jesus was anointed as the True Prophet, or it could also point to the anointing of Jesus for his death for the forgiveness of sins. Also, Matthew doesn’t say how many magi there were, or if it was just men. It could have been any number, and possibly men or women. We might remember the Queen of Sheba being a great admirer of King Solomon, and she brought him gifts in honor of his wisdom, and there is something much greater than Solomon here. So following the precedent set by the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, the magi could very well have been wise kings (but again, probably not, as Matthew probably would have said they were kings, rather than magi). 

One of the traditions surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is the annual house blessing. If you haven’t had a priest come and bless your house, you should do that. But if it’s already been blessed by a priest, you can share in this Epiphany house blessing tradition. Using a piece of chalk, write on the top of the frame (the lintel) of your door, the letters C M B, with crosses on either side and in between the letters, and then surround that by the year. In this case 20 before and 20 after, because it’s 2020. So it would be 20+C+M+B+20 (some traditions replace the first cross with a star, representing the Star of Bethlehem). The CMB stands for the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “May Christ bless this house.” But it’s associated with Epiphany because tradition has it that the names of the magi were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, CMB. These come from non-bibilical sources that were much later. By about the 4th century, different regions had different names given to them. But in the 6th century, the emperor Justinian added beautiful mosaics to many churches in the city of Ravenna, and in the church of Saint Apollonare, the mosaics of the wise men have their names above them as the names we now use. 


detail from the image at top, from the church of Saint Apollonare in Ravenna

In honor of this tradition, instead of handing out chalk, we have cards with the Epiphany house blessing on them, available on the table in the vestibule. You can just tape it above your front door, or the door you use the most.

Another tradition surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is Twelfth Night. Although we now celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday after January 1st, so the date of Epiphany changes from year to year, traditionally it was always celebrated on January 6. In the year 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the Christmas celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, and the night before Epiphany, or the night of Epiphany, the Twelfth Night, was a great celebration.

In England, a hot mulled apple cider called “wassail” is enjoyed throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Twelfth Night, and door-to-door wassailing (singing Christmas carols) was common (“Here we come a-wassailing…”). William Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night” (though far from reflecting the religious aspect of the occasion) was written to be part of the general celebration of Twelfth Night. 

On Twelfth Night in German speaking countries, the Sternsinger (“star singers”) go around to houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole (the Star of Bethlehem). They sing a carol, then write in chalk over the door the blessing we just talked about.

In our present time and place, we have our own Twelfth Night tradition, where the choirs of several Catholic parishes gather in a different church each year and present a beautiful assortment of musical performances. This year, our parish choir, combining with children from the school choir, will be performing in the Twelfth Night concert this afternoon [Sunday, January 6] at 2:00 at Historic St. Mary’s in Lancaster. It would be wonderful to go support them, and to enjoy this wonderful Twelfth Night sacred music tradition.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the unveiling—the manifestation—of the glory of our king and lord Jesus, the Christ child rightly worshiped by the magi. Matthew ends our reading by saying that rather than going back to Herod, they departed a different way. That is our Epiphany task as well: to encounter and behold the mystery of Christ. And having prostrated ourselves before his hidden glory, having received the blessing of God, we then depart different, overjoyed, changed by our encounter with him, to go out and be the manifestation of Christ to others.

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