Ampleforth Abbey

20 January 2018

Solemnity of the Epiphany 2018

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71; Ephesians 3:2-3a.5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

I suspect the Epiphany to many of us is something exotic. The wise men, or are they kings, travel from a mysterious place in the East. Arabia? Persia? Chaldea? Further? They follow a star. Are they astrologers? They have come in search of a new-born king, to do him homage. Naturally, they go to the capital and ask at the royal palace. They are told where to look and proceed on their way to Bethlehem. They travel perhaps on camels, even today an exotic animal to ride.

And, as we heard, when they come to the Bethlehem, they are wise enough not to be put off by the simplicity and poverty of the manger, but show that they are truly wise by worshipping the new-born Jesus and offering him their best gifts. Finally, they continue to demonstrate their wisdom by returning east avoiding Jerusalem and the court of King Herod.

It does sound very exotic. But in fact that story is only one of many epiphanies of the nature of Jesus Christ. The word epiphany simply means to show or shine to, to the world in this case.

The story of the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem is an epiphany. They hear the good news from the angels and run into Bethlehem to tell Mary and Joseph what they have heard and seen. John the Baptist points out Jesus to anyone who will listen: “look, there is the Lamb of God.” Some of John’s disciples do listen and start to follow Jesus.

Andrew tells his brother Simon “we have found the Messiah,” another epiphany. Jesus overhears Nathanael dismissing Jesus’s home town: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” but a few minutes later he is saying to Jesus “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.” A complete change has taken place, because Jesus’ real nature has shone out. It was an epiphany.

Similarly at the Lord’s baptism, the voice is heard: “this is my Son, my favour rests on him, listen to him.” And at Cana, at the wedding feast, when Jesus has turned the water into wine, we are told by John: “he let his glory be seen.”

But epiphanies don’t stop there. What about those who are healed by Jesus? The paralysed man who was let down through the roof by his friends; the lepers who were cleansed; the synagogue official whose child recovered from illness. Surely in all these cases Jesus let his glory be seen.

And other encounters: the Samaritan woman at the well; Zacchaeus the tax collector: their lives were changed by the encounter. And right at the end of his life, even one of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop at his death. What about the disciples who encounter the risen Lord? Peter at the lakeside; the two walkers on their way to Emmaus; even Saul on his way to Damascus. All these are epiphanies. All these are occasions when Jesus’ true nature shone out, and he was recognised for what he truly was. And these stories are not exotic. They don’t seem to come out of the Arabian Nights. These stories are about how people come to believe. And this is something we should all be interested in. Remember that in each case, the people involved are changed. Even the wise men return home different from what they were.

It is this experience that St Paul is so keen to share with the early Christians. He always seems to have had that wonderful sense that he had been called to preach the good news to the pagans. But he is not giving them the good news as a sort of favour. Remember what he said in today’s reading: “I have been entrusted by God with the grace he meant for you.” He is a sort of messenger, a postman, an email account provider. It is not his message: he is just the conduit. His task is to pass on the message of the good news. His role is to interfere as little as possible, to hand on the good news without corruption, to be as transparent and speedy as possible, to be efficient as a messenger, but not to get in the way.

So, as ever, we should ask ourselves how do these readings speak to us? The story of the Epiphany is teaching a lesson about the spread of the truth beyond the confines of the stable, beyond the boundaries of Israel to the widest corners of the world. It is about evangelisation, about how to spread the Gospel. Yes, like the wise men we bring gifts to Jesus – we too open our packs and give him the best things we have. But we are surprised to find that he gives us things in response, and his gifts are so much greater than anything we can give him.

It tells us that even if we follow the best of our human wisdom and philosophy, we still need revelation, the touch of grace, to understand fully and to come to faith. It tells us that as we draw near to the Lord, we are changed, we will never be the same again. We have received the light and now we can see by this new light, given us by Christ, and we can avoid evil, just as the wise men returned to their own land, avoiding Herod.

But this light, this grace, is not just for our own use. It is not a private possession. Far from it, what we have been given, we have been entrusted with – we have to pass it on. But don’t be afraid. When we leave this church at the end of Mass, let us all resolve to take with us some of that light and grace that the Lord asks us to hand over to others.

And just as the men from the east needed the wisdom to recognize the true nature of the baby in the manger, we too need wisdom to recognize the presence of Christ in the most unlikely of places. St Benedict talks about recognizing the presence of Christ in the guest and in the poor. We need to be alert to his presence for when we encounter him today.