A rabbi posed this question to his students: “How can you tell when the night has ended and the day is beginning to dawn?” One student replied, “Could it be at that moment when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?” “No,” said the rabbi. Another student offered, “Could it be when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a sycamore?” Again, the rabbi said, “No.” “Well then,” asked his students, “when can you tell when night has ended and day is dawning?” In response, the rabbi explained, “It is when you can look into the face of another and see that he is your brother. If you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
Many Christians will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany tomorrow on January 3rd while a significant number will celebrate on the traditional date of January 6 concluding the twelve days of Christmas. The angels, the shepherds and the magi at the birth of Jesus comprise not just a cute story about the birth of Jesus, but signify the dawn of a new day in the history of all humankind. The dawn of this new day shows vividly that in Jesus Christ, God embraces all people.
One of the most memorable movies of 1984 was “Places in the Heart,” a beautifully told story about life in a small Texas town during the Great Depression. The main character, played by Sally Field, is a young wife whose husband dies in a tragic accident, and it is up to her to raise her children and harvest the cotton crop in time to save the farm. Along with a very realistic portrayal of life during this time period, including some intense scenes depicting racial violence and the degradations of poverty, what many movie goers found most memorable was the last scene. We see all the main characters of the story at a church communion service. In the course of that communion, all differences or race and class are gone and even those characters who died violent deaths in the story are restored to the community. Reconciliation had been established at this “Lord’s Supper” which in fact is meant to be a foretaste of the life of heaven. (It was an amazing example of Hollywood getting theology right in a movie.)
What the Angels, shepherds and Magi experience and proclaim is a new age of love and reconciliation between God and humanity. We now see everything from the best vantage point, where tragedy is resolved, reconciliation accomplished in a moment of all encompassing love from God. A cute story that captures the imagination is all about God embracing not just the chosen people, the Jews, but embracing astrologers, pagans and all sorts of people and bringing them into the kingdom of God too. The Magi represent the response that all of us should give to God’s initiative in the world, a new way of living life, filled with faith in Jesus, hope and love.
The Gospel proclamation about the birth of Jesus and the exotic characters that are made aware of this unusual birth is meant to challenge us to wonder in amazement at what God is doing in the world and in our own personal lives. In a sermon for Epiphany from a 5th century bishop and saint of the Church, Peter Chrysologus, known as Peter of the Golden Word, he states, “Today, the Magi find in the manger the one they have followed as he shone in the sky. Today, the Magi see clearly the one they have long awaited, as he lay hidden among the stars. Today, the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, and the One whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die.”
First, the poor in the persons of the Shepherds are made aware of the birth of the Messiah. Lastly kings, exotic and rich astrologers acknowledge Jesus appearance as decisive. Everything is changed because Jesus has come among us. We can ignore him and turn away, but we cannot avoid the fact of his coming, which has redefined the purpose of life itself. If we do not follow him we will be moving away from the dawn of new light, away from the homecoming God has planned for us. To move toward the light is to take up a lifelong discipleship. God has disturbed our comfort, challenged our prejudices, and forced us to consider the demands of love by taking His place among the poor first and lastly all of humanity in need, symbolized by the rich astrologers. How difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, yet with God in the Person of a Baby, all things are possible. What an Epiphany!