“You have come and revealed yourself, O Inaccessible Light,” declares one of the Byzantine kontakions, or hymns, for the feast of the Epiphany (called the feast of the Theophany in the Eastern churches).
As is common in many Eastern hymns, there is joyous reveling in the great mystery of the Incarnation. God is inaccessible, yet has made himself accessible in the most surprising way: by being born in a cave to a Jewish virgin.
Today’s feast celebrates the epiphaneia — the manifestation — of God in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Down through time, between the East and the West, the feast has focused to varying degrees on three key events: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. Each of these events reveals the truth of the Incarnation and spills forth the glory of God.
The Magi, traveling afar (likely from Persia), paid homage to the newborn King of kings. They represent the first of the Gentiles brought into the family of God through the Christ Child (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 528). St. Paul, in today’s epistle, writes of the “mystery” that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,” the Church. The “catholic” nature of the New Covenant would, of course, prove to be a source of consternation and conflict, just as the questions asked by the Magi would provoke Herod to jealousy and rage.
We are so familiar with the story of the Magi that it is possible to be dulled to the paradox of wealthy, educated rulers from the East bestowing precious gifts upon a Jewish baby in a humble home. Was the star enough to convince them of the baby’s importance?
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 homily for this feast day, said there was something more. “In comparison with King Herod, beset with his interests of power and riches,” he said, “the Magi were directed toward the goal of their quest, and when they found it, although they were cultured men, they behaved like the shepherds of Bethlehem: They recognized the sign and adored the Child, offering him the precious and symbolic gifts that they had brought with them.”
What the Magi recognized, by God’s grace, was the presence of glory, light and splendor, cradled in the arms of Mary. Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah describes how darkness and “thick clouds cover the peoples” — the nations of the earth — but that light has come to Jerusalem; “the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” Many of the Jews rejected the light, just as some walked in it, such as Mary. People choose to either see the splendor or to retreat into the darkness.
During Advent, we anticipated the parousia — the presence — of the King; the feast of the Epiphany marks the fulfillment of that anticipation. The glory that slowly lit the Advent sky has now burst forth in the person of the Son. If Christmas is the celebration of God quietly invading the dark lands of humanity, Epiphany is the celebration, in part, of man recognizing the light of the invasion.
“The glory of God,” the Catechism teaches, “consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created” (No. 294). Man was made to share in God’s glory, and God’s glory is demonstrated in the salvation of man.
To God alone be glory. Soli Deo Gloria !
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com