In this concluding feast of Christmas (falling as late in January as it can), the Church remembers three epiphanies, or glorious manifestations, of Jesus: the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Our Lord and the wedding at Cana.
In the Gospel of Matthew, wise men (or kings) from the East arrive having divined through a star the birth of the king of the Jews. To Herod, this is bad news. If there is a new king, then he’s the old one. It’s generally bad to be the old king. The Magi come to the newborn babe in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Our Nativity sets don’t tend to do justice to the scene. How strange it must have been for Mary and Joseph to watch these Gentiles from the East doing homage to their newborn son! To see them fall to their knees and worship the child hidden from the world.
The gifts given to Jesus have a deeper meaning, already pointing to the deeper sense of Christ’s kingship. Gold is given to a royal figure, frankincense to a priest who will offer sacrifice, and myrrh to anoint a dead body.
Christ’s kingship is not the same as Herod’s. It is not a matter of power politics or scheming. Instead, it is a kingship that will be expressed in his priestly offering on the cross. It is a kingship of love, and the Magi perceive the contours of this love already in the newborn child.
The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is not celebrated on a Sunday in 2018 (it is commemorated on Monday, Jan. 8). In the Christian East, Christ’s epiphany is especially concerned with Christ’s baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist.
The one who was hidden from this world, unknown to Israel, now manifests his identity to the world: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). He is the beloved Son, God’s very king. The Spirit of the Lord descends upon him, and everyone, for at least a moment, see him for who he is.
He is Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of the Father. In the desert, Israel’s trysting place with God, the Bridegroom has come forth to make his presence known. Now, indeed, is the fullness of time. Such power revealed in this simple Israelite.
The final moment associated with Epiphany is the wedding feast at Cana, the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John. Running out of wine, the beloved Son acts as the Bridegroom. For it is the responsibility of the bridegroom to provide the wine at weddings, and Our Lord takes up this mission.
He transforms a copious quantity of water into the choicest of wines. At least for a moment, those at the wedding experience a taste of the kingdom of God.
What do these three events have to do with Christmas? In the manger at Bethlehem, power is revealed through weakness.
In the baptism of the Lord, power is revealed through one who gives his will over to God, becoming a Son of Israel.
At the wedding at Cana, power is revealed through the unknown Christ, the son of Mary.
Thus, the feast of Epiphany provides one last opportunity for us to reflect on the hidden power of a God who has become infant, who has become Israelite, who has become the son of Mary.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14).
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.