Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, 8 January 2023 by Fr. Gerard Jonas
The Star of Bethlehem
Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Intro to the celebration:
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Traditionally this is celebrated on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. Some dioceses all over the world still do so. For us here, as in other churches, it is on this Sunday, so more can partake in the celebration. And that’s precisely the point of this feast – Epiphany – to be available, to be accessible!
Epiphany means the manifestation of God. Simply put, God allows Himself to be found. Jesus did not just incarnate in obscurity, but in lowliness, He draws the fallen humanity to Himself and offers salvation. The immensity of the glory of God is so greatly infinite. It is too much for our finite and limited nature to handle. So God entered our limited nature, our limited realm of time and space to let himself be seen, to be encountered.
As His incarnation is intentional, so is His epiphany or manifestation. The object of the Incarnation, indeed, is to make Himself available and accessible.
Recall the story of Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Noami in Bethlehem, when Boaz noticed Ruth gleaning wheat grains from the harvest grounds, he ordered the harvesters not to rebuke or disturb her but all the more to intentionally leave more grains on the ground, so that while Ruth may not actually be harvesting, she may have enough to glean and take home. This benefactor-beneficiary dynamics in Bethlehem many centuries earlier may be deemed as a prefiguration of the much later event to a much greater extent!
Now, reflecting on the dynamics of the Epiphany, we first notice the star that leads to the newborn king. The star of Bethlehem attracts not as something admirable in itself but as something that leads to the more significant. Then notice the varied reactions to the star. Just hearing about it, Herod was greatly troubled, and the people of Jerusalem with him. On the other hand, the magi were overjoyed. Why the difference in the reaction?
It was not really the star but its significance that actually caused these varied reactions. The star is a guide to reach the place of encounter with the Lord in Bethlehem. The one following it must reach Bethlehem, the point of contact or encounter with Jesus who is the face of God, of the love of God, of the mercy of God, of the glory of God,
What the magi experienced is exemplary of what God offers – an encounter with Him. The intentional incarnation of Jesus into our realm of time renders Him available and accessible for this and all other encounters, including those for us nowadays and for those still coming after our lifetime.
How do we encounter God? Yes, when we pray, individually or communally. Yes, in the sacraments. At this Eucharist, Christ is present in four modes: the assembly or gathered people of God, the priest celebrant, the proclamation of the Word, and the Eucharistic Species of the Body & Blood of Christ.
How else? What or who are our stars – our guides to the points of contact with God? In our joys, pains, and hopes.. in sickness and in health, in our needfulness and utter helplessness, in frustrations or even death? Who or what has so far guided us to encounter the Lord- people, books, social media blogs?
As we marvel at the beauty of creation, we are moved to thank God. In our fears, anxieties, and distress, we are moved to call on God for His mercy. As we aspire and hope for the better- to be healed of infirmities, to be free from bodily and spiritual afflictions, to attain smoother interpersonal relationships, or to have better opportunities to support our families, we are moved to depend on God’s loving mercy and bask in His peace and joy. The kindness and generosity of those around us move us to thank God for his providence.
What, where, or who is our Bethlehem? Does distress lead us to frustration and despair? Or does it enliven our faith and hope in God, that God is in control of our life? Following the star, in joy, the magi reached Bethlehem. In defying all the odds of primitive travel, their hope and faith never wavered. Their humility fueled their sustained energy. Herod never reached and never intended to reach Bethlehem and in distress, even schemed to destroy what may be found in Bethlehem as he intended to remain in power. His self-centeredness, fear and insecurity fueled his crazed schemes.
Once we encounter God, we are changed. After encountering the King of kings, and paying homage, the magi were instructed to take another route. How does our encounter with God also call us to reroute or redirect our lives? How does success or sickness or death impact our life, our life of faith?
How have we so far become aware of the nearness, of the accessibility of God, of the eagerness of God to impart to us His love and mercy, and all that it entails? How do we make this encounter happen for others as well?
The Prophet Isaiah says it well, “rise up… your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” Let us be enlightened by our encounter with the Lord. Let us take the two-fold challenge – to be both recipients and agents of encounters with Jesus. Be the star that guides to Bethlehem and be Bethlehem, the place or locus of encounter with the Lord.