In heaven one year it was decided that on the Feast of the Epiphany they would have a liturgy that recreated the visit of the three stargazers from the East. The job of the stargazers was given to the founders of three great religious orders in the Church.
So, everyone gathered to see St. Francis of Assisi come forward at the appropriate time and lay clay doves before the crib of Jesus. As one, as if on cue, the entire heavenly choir went, “Aaahhh!”
St. Benedict was next and he processed slowly to the crib holding a magnificent bejeweled Bible. On the front of it were the words, “This is Your Life.” Everyone in heaven called out, “Oohhh!”
Finally, St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, limped forward without a gift. He walked straight past the crib, passing up Mary. Everyone in heaven was aghast and thought this is so typical of the Jesuits – he doesn’t know where he’s going in the liturgy and turns up empty-handed. They all watched as he went over to Jesus’ foster father, Joseph. He puts his arm around Joseph’s shoulder and says, “So tell me, Joe, where are you going to send your boy to school? I have connections with Division 1 Colleges and Universities in America and can get you a special rate!”
When we go to the movies, we have to suspend our critical sensibilities in order to enter into the full power of the story. When it comes to the story of the Epiphany, a similar concession is necessary in order to embrace the narrative.
Why, after following a star all the way from the East to Jerusalem, did they have to stop and ask directions from Herod? Why didn’t Herod follow the wise men, or send a spy to learn of their destination instead of slaughtering all those babies in Bethlehem? Whatever happened to these “wise” men? They were the first to recognize who Jesus was and then they vanish from his life as quickly as they entered it.
Like Martin Scorsese or Cecil B. DeMille, Matthew plays with history for another purpose and we sit back and enjoy the picture that’s being painted for us. In his gospel, Matthew is at pains to show how the Jews missed out on Jesus because they were locked in their fears. Pilate is just as fearful as Herod, and the consequence of being threatened by Jesus, results in Pilate’s sentence of crucifixion for Jesus, just like the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem ordered by Herod.
So often our reactions to Jesus can be like Herod’s. We can be threatened and frightened. We want to eliminate the voices that remind us to live out the gospel truth because we’re reminded, at times, of the costs involved. Matthew tells us that the enemy of the Christian life is fear. It entraps and infects those around us. It is most effective when we risk losing power, so we lie, are deceitful, we’ll do almost anything to maintain our position. And like we see in Pilate and Herod, it all ends in death. But when we face down our fears, and name the real threats in our lives, we know the truth of the Scripture for today that says, “Morning star who came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all humanity.”
So, this annual story is more than a travelogue of exotic Persian royalty or peculiar, nerdy wizards. It’s a story of the choices that lie before all Christians everywhere: Do we want to live out of wonder or fear?
To follow Jesus’ rule is to keep our eye on the star that lights the path to having the courage to live the gospel message, embrace the cross, see Christ in the neglected and marginalized, all the while trusting that God will remain faithful to us through death to eternal life, where fear will be no more!
Blessed Epiphany! Fr. Glenn