A reflection on the Sunday readings for January 3, 2021 — the Epiphany of the Lord
Is your Christmas tree still up? Have you taken down your Christmas decorations yet? When I was a child back in India, our tradition was not to put away the manger scene, the Christmas star, and all the Christmas decorations until after the Feast of the Epiphany. At the time, I did not like this feast. For me, it meant that Christmas was finally over and life must return to normal. Liturgically too, the Epiphany signals that the Christmas season is about to end. But I understand this feast differently now. I realize that the Epiphany is a way to carry Christmas into the rest of the year.
How can we carry Christmas into Ordinary Time and the ordinariness of life?
Epiphany means “manifestation”
The feast of the Epiphany is the manifestation, or the revelation, or the making known of the Christ to the entire world. Christ is God become human. As the Christ is manifested to the world, the question we might ask is, “And why did God become human?” The answer is, “So that we might become divine!” The best way to carry Christmas into Ordinary Time is to remember that Christmas is not merely the celebration of God becoming human but also a celebration of humanity being made divine.
Christmas calls us to live the rest of our life in the realization of our new-found dignity as human and divine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (CCC 460). This thought has been consistently expressed by the earliest Church Fathers and later theologians alike. St. Irenaeus, who lived in the early Second Century says, “For this is why the Word became man and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
St. Athanasius, in the early 4th Century, said, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” And again, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian of the 13th Century wrote, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” I am proposing that we take this thought into the New Year. After that first Christmas, we are no ordinary beings. We are human and divine. May our life reflect what Christ has accomplished for us. Let this be our new epiphany.
Every person is a Sacrament of God
This point leads me to a related practical implication of Christmas and Epiphany—recognizing the human person as a sacrament of God. On the feast of the Epiphany, I often think about the wisdom and insight of the Magi; about their humility, their openness, and their ability to be surprised by God. When the star led them on their journey, what did they expect to find?
Perhaps as most people would, they went looking for the Christ in Herod’s palace. But that is not where the divine child was to be found. Their search ultimately led them to an ordinary house (not at the stable where he was born), where they found a child with his mother. They came, they saw, they did homage! In a vulnerable, powerless, humble human child, they saw the Divine. This has implications for the sacramental life of the Church.
As Catholics, we understand the power of the Sacraments. However, the broader meaning of the word “sacramental” refers to any created reality that communicates the divine. In this sense, creation is a sacramental in the same way as a crucifix or holy water. More importantly, if we believe that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, and that God became human so that we can become divine, then every human person too is a sacrament of God. Christmas and Epiphany teach us to treat each other with more respect than we do “sacramentals.” Christmas and Epiphany invite us to be wise and insightful like the Magi.
Christmas and Epiphany invite us to humility, to openness, and the willingness to be surprised by God. They call us to discover the divine in every human person. They call us to treat each other with respect, with dignity, with fear and awe! Black, white, or brown, citizen, immigrant or undocumented, rich, poor, or in-between, baby in the womb, child outside the womb, man, woman—every human person worth of divine dignity. In the most real and honest way, every person is a sacrament of God. Let us take this into the New Year.
The relationship between faith and politics
There is a third implication that today feast that has serious implications for us—the relationship between faith and politics. Today’s first reading says, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance” (Is 60:3). There is a grave error that we are falling into today: people are choosing to walk in the light of the nation rather than in God’s light. Some of us have gone even further. Some of us believe that the nation is the way to God.
The Epiphany story holds a great truth—a truth that is easy to overlook. Epiphany exposes the exploitation of religion by the “powers that be.” When the Magi came looking for the king of the Jews, Herod held an audience for them. He told them to let him know when they find this king so that he too might offer him homage. He was lying. In reality, Herod was playing political games. He wanted to destroy the child. At the end of the story, when an angel directed the Magi to leave the country without meeting Herod, the infuriated king unleashed ruthless political violence by killing innocent children. Religion has often been used as a tool to wield power over people.
Christmas and Epiphany have implications for the relationship between faith and politics. If you do disagree with me on this, please do respectfully, but, every election year, religion becomes a tool in the hands of the powerful. And this in a nation that upholds the separation of Church and State. Adding to the problem in 2020, cardinals, bishops, priests, and nuns jumped into the extremely partisan and polarized political arena, thus alienating those who did not share their political or ideological affiliation. I believe that when religious representatives become partisan, they compromise the power of the Gospel. Faith cannot become subservient to political whims. Faith must inform our politics rather than politics inform our faith. Our faith and our moral choices must be guided by the gospel! Nations must walk in God’s light and not the other way around! I say this sadly, but the contrary has become mainstream in our nation. I have no strategies to turn this around, but perhaps, at least we should be conscious and intentional when our faith and religious sentiments are being exploited by others. The Magi understood this and left Herod’s land by another route. It is time for us to take a different route in the new year.
The highlight of the Epiphany is that the Magi offered the child Jesus gifts worthy of a King and the Messiah. Today, let us join them as we offer our lives and our homage to the Word made flesh. Amen.
By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, 00.159.30_PS1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195787