In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind covered the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. —Genesis 1:1-4
The very first words of Scripture show the might of God as he creates from nothing and separates the darkness of the void from the light of his creation. As we entered into Advent this past November, people seemed more eager than ever to put up their Christmas lights, trying to dispel the darkness, the void, of the pandemic. As the days got shorter and the news more dire, we held on to the hope of Christmas and the promise of the Incarnation. The joyful words of John’s Gospel proclaimed Christmas Day filled our hearts with light once more:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. —John 1:1-5
A baby, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin and raised by a righteous man of the house of David, scattered the darkness of sin and death and brought eternal light to the Father’s creation. The Incarnation is the physical reality of God breaking into the world. The Light lying humbly in the manger could not be contained by the walls of a cave or the arms of his parents. He would shine forth for the whole world to see; and he would shine not just for the chosen ones of Israel, but for the whole world.
The Feast of the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6 but moved to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8 in the United States, is the second manifestation of the Incarnate God. In the Liturgical Year, it ranks equal in importance with Christmas, Ascension and Pentecost—second only to the Easter Triduum (General Norms of the Liturgical Year, 59). Epiphany ends the season of Christmas and is immediately followed by the celebration of the Lord’s baptism—the third manifestation of the Incarnate God. (During Cycle C of the Lectionary readings, the wedding at Cana follows the Baptism of the Lord, also considered a manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God; we are currently in Cycle B.)
Many traditions have grown up around the celebration of Epiphany, which is one of the oldest feasts celebrated by the Church. But if we really want to understand this feast, we should set aside these “extras” and look carefully at the Scriptures for this day, which are constant regardless of the lectionary cycle.
Isaiah 60:1-6 is the First Reading on Epiphany, and this is the only time it is proclaimed at Mass. It begins with the command for Jerusalem to “Rise up in splendor.” Why must Jerusalem rise up? Because “the glory of the Lord shines upon you…upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory” (verse 1). As we listen to these words, reflecting on them through the eyes of the New Testament, we understand that Jerusalem refers not just to the city, but to the Israelite nation. Even though the world is covered in the darkness of sin, the Lord shines on his people. This Light that is the Lord is meant to be shared not just among the Israelites, but all the nations: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance…your sons come from afar and your daughters in the arms of your nurses” (verses 3-4). The passage ends with the people of Jerusalem “radiant at what you see” (verse 5); what they see is the Gentile world coming to believe in the Light of the Lord, showing their faith with gifts and praising the Lord.
The Responsorial for Epiphany is “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you,” using verses from Psalm 72. The Responsorial Psalm is chosen to reflect the message of the first reading and is our response in faith to what we have heard. The king’s son shall govern with justice and rule from sea to sea until the “moon be no more” (verse 5). The kings shall come from foreign lands and pay homage. And the king’s son will come to save the “lives of the poor” (verse 13). As the Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we become aware that Epiphany is about much more than wise men and gifts.
The Second Reading from Ephesians (Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6) sheds more light on the importance of this Feast. First, Paul says that, “the mystery was made known to me by revelation” (verse 3). God revealed himself—was made manifest—to Paul by blinding him by a great flash of light and then healing him of that blindness. Often we think of an epiphany as something that comes from ourselves; but an epiphany, or revelation, can only happen because God works in us first. The second part of the reading from Ephesians points us to the Gospel; namely, “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (verse 6). The Father reveals himself perfectly to the peoples of every nation through his incarnate Son, the Light that no darkness can overcome.
In the Gospel from Matthew 2:1-12 we finally hear the passage that we most associate with Epiphany. Magi come from the east after seeing and following the star. They come to give homage to the king of the Jews and to offer him gifts. They proclaim their belief in this newborn king to all who will listen, including the jealous Herod and the troubled scribes and Pharisees. Faithfully obeying the message heard in a dream, the Magi return home by another way.
The Magi rose up and left the darkness of their lives to follow a distant and radiant star. They are an example to us to see the Light of Christ, to follow him at his rising, and to proclaim his glory to the whole world. The gifts that we are to bring are our lives, offered up to the Father at every Mass and returned to us transformed as we receive Christ, our Light, in the Eucharist. It is Christ who dispels the darkness, and we are sent to bear his light in the world.