The solemnity of the Epiphany is a celebration of the epiphaneia — the revelation and manifestation — of God become man. It is a celebration of the Incarnation; it is also a recognition that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, is both the joyous center of history and the cause for division and discomfort. The prologue to John’s Gospel expresses this in stark terms: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:9-11).
The light, as St. John wrote, shines in the darkness. However, if we cannot see and recognize the darkness — the sad and desperate state of a fallen humanity and a wounded creation — we will not see the light. The prophet Isaiah, in today’s first reading, touches on this in his exhortation, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” The city was in deep spiritual slumber, oblivious to both the darkness and light, existing in a sort of confusing mist: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples,” declared Isaiah, “but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.” We might ask: Wouldn’t it be obvious to all if God’s light was shining upon us? How could anyone miss such an event?
The French poet Paul Claudel, in his “Hymn for Epiphany,” delved into the mystery of spiritual sight and blindness. “But see!” he wrote, “the star has tarried, Mary holds God within her arms! … We have but to open our eyes and brush the mist away. ...” The mysterious magi saw the light in the darkness and sought it out. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20.00), noted that the wise men from Persia used their religious and philosophical wisdom “to set off in the right direction”; they are open to the directives of God, even if it involves the difficulty of a long journey.
Another poet, T. S. Eliot, in “Journey of the Magi,” considered how daunting it must have been for the magi, traveling in the cold night and wondering if it “was all folly.” The magi witnessed a birth, but “this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Returning home, the magi are “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods.” This is surprisingly melancholy, but it reiterates the fact that the Incarnation is not a nice story or a curious tale, but the shattering entrance of the true light into a world of darkness.
Who will stay in the darkness? Who will come into the light? Who will follow the star and arrive at the house, see Mary and prostrate themselves in worship? Who will take the gift of life and toss it away with passionate frivolity? And who will take their life and lay it before the newborn King?
The words of Herod were filled with obvious deception and unintended irony: “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” The murderous king was right to command the wise men to search for the Christ-child. He said the right things; he gave public lip service. But he spoke from darkness and to darkness he returned. The magi, however, knelt within the light, and they would never be the same. Touched by the mystery, they were free of the mist, journeying home in light.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.