Several days ago we celebrated the Nativity of our Lord – His birth from the Blessed Virgin Mary – today we celebrate His Epiphany. The word Epiphany brings together two important ideas: light and knowledge. Light is something we almost take for granted: the human race used to be much more dependent upon natural light to perform daily activities. When the days became shorter, the kinds of activities that you could expect to do were different from when the days were longer. Summer and Winter were not just warmer and colder, but the change in the amount of daylight meant that you couldn’t work the same way all day every day of the year. Today we have enough artificial light to work almost the same way all year long – most people work on screens that produce their own light and it is only some combination of discipline, boredom, and exhaustion that make us set them aside. We get light from electricity, and we have a fairly extensive control over electricity so how much light the natural world is willing to provide us with at any given time hardly seems limiting.
At the same time, the impact of natural sunlight on our psychological well-being is noticeable for everyone – some more than others. The lack of sunlight might keep us from “being productive” just because we feel less motivated, even though the artificial light we control means we have no excuse to stop working and being efficient. Jesus Himself talks about the contrast between light and darkness, and work and passivity. “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” (Jn 9:4) Today we think it is strange that someone would suggest that no one can work at night – but that’s what Jesus said. Jesus said that we need light in order to work – but we need daylight. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
On the one hand we need physical light in order to see the world around us. Spiritually, we need light or knowledge in order to understand the world around us. The light we most desperately need is an understanding of the purpose of our lives, our destiny, where we are going and how we can get there. Jesus is that kind of light – a light that the world itself cannot give us: neither the sun nor the artificial lights we have made. This is the great celebration of Epiphany: the light we need to understand our purpose in life has come into the world. Jesus shows the Wise Men the light they are seeking – Jesus is both God and man and has become the path for men and women to live as God. The shining light of divinity radiating through the human flesh of Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. When we can no longer work because the sun has set, we ought to turn to the true light and partake of wisdom.
Herod scrambles around because he is afraid of losing control, his rule becomes unnatural because he wants to extinguish the true light – he becomes an artificial king, an artificial light. His anxiety and folly will only continue to grow because he has cut off the possibility for true wisdom and understanding. The wise men, on the contrary, are able to continue in wisdom because they humbly welcome the true light. It is a light that shows them they are not ultimately in control over themselves or the world – they humbly welcome the rule of an infant because of what and who He is. May we humbly welcome the true light into our hearts and lives – may we relinquish the artificial lights that only serve to propel us into frenetic and vain pursuits, leaving us exhausted and empty. Jesus, enlighten our darkness.
What does this mean, that it was in the time of a very malevolent king that God descended to earth, divinity entered into flesh, a heavenly union occurred with an earthly body? What does this mean? How could it happen that a tyrant could then be driven out by one who was not a king, who would free his people, renew the face of the earth and restore freedom? Herod, an apostate, had wrongly invaded the kingdom of the Jews, taken away their liberty, profaned their holy places, disrupted the established order, abolished whatever there was of discipline and religious worship. It was fitting therefore that God’s own aid would come to succor that holy race without any human help. Rightly did God emancipate the race that no human hand could free. In just this way will Christ come again, to undo the antichrist, free the world, restore the original land of paradise, uphold the liberty of the world and take away all its slavery.1
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Jacob was called the first Israel when he beheld the ladder and, on it, the “angels ascending and descending.” He wrestled with the one who appeared to him. He heard him say, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel.” By this name the entire people of Israel was called, as if by a name divinely chosen, setting them apart from other nations. Now, Israel means “a mind that sees God.” Thus the church from among the Gentiles is also called Israel, not according to the flesh but according to divine grace.2
GREGORY THE GREAT:
The star appeared to guide the magi. They found the newborn king and offered him their gifts. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. And so Herod was unable to find Jesus, whom he was seeking. Herod symbolizes all those today who, falsely seeking after the Lord, never manage to find him.3
“And when they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly,” because they had not been deceived in their hope but rather confirmed even more that they had not undertaken the burden of so great a journey without reason. By the sign of the star appearing to them at the time, they understood that the birth of the King was revealed to them by divine authority. Through the mystery of the star they understood that the dignity of the King who was born exceeded the measure of all earthly kings. For it was inevitable that they considered this King more glorious than the star, which devotedly paid homage to him. What else could these men do but submit to him when even the stars in the sky saw they were subject to him? How could the earth be rebellious against him upon whom the heavens waited?4
- SERMONS 156.5. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 21–22). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 11. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 23). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FORTY GOSPEL HOMILIES 10.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 23). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 27). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.