Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12
Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of:
- Make America great again!”
- “God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave!”
- American Exceptionalism.
- “U.S.A., U.S.A.!”
- “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
- “America’s the world’s indispensable nation.”
- Collin Kaepernick should stand for the national anthem.
Additionally, our “leaders” have decided to ignore the world’s best and wisest minds by rejecting climate science and its warning about the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.
I mean hyper-patriotism and rejection of wise men (and women) seem to be the order of the day. And it has its religious dimension as well: it’s as if even USian Christians actually believe that God loves them more than Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis, or Ethiopians. It’s as if God loves Christians more than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews. Witness Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced pick for National Security Advisor. He has described Islam itself and its 1.7 billion followers as a “vicious cancer” that has to be excised. In Flynn’s little mind, the wisdom of that Great Religion is completely ignored.
The message of today’s celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany contradicts all of that – the hyper-patriotism, the othering of foreigners, and any attempt to fit the divine into narrow religious categories. Today’s readings challenge Jesus-followers to grow up – to transcend our blind ethnocentrism, expand our horizons and at last become citizens of the world.
Remember: the word “epiphany” means the appearance or manifestation of God – a revelation of who God really is. Accordingly, today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of the Universal God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us clearly that God is not what ethnocentric believers expected or even wanted. S/he loves everyone equally, not just Jews, much less Usians.
That’s part of why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew was like the one worshipped by “America-first” Usians. He loved and favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood.
So Herod and Jerusalem were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The astrologers claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.
The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three astronomers) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.
Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.
Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?
Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.
No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.
Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.
3 thoughts on “Epiphany Sunday: Its Call to Grow Up and Become Citizens of the World”
Thanks Mike for this blog. I watched Roger Karban’s commentary. He said that when the Greek text was translated into Latin, they changed “magoi” (magician, astrologer) to “magi” potentates, kings, etc. He referred to a painting that showed them in magician’s dress. God seems to be saying, “you can find God in unexpected ways”. He also pointed out how different the RCIA is from “Father Smith Instructs Jackson” or similar way that converts were brought into the Catholic Church. The RCIA is supposed to let people reflect on how God has been present to them and discover that each person’s experience is different. I don’t know if this actually happens in practice. Again many thanks for your powerful and challenging reflections.
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Those who could find herbs to cure illness were termed magicians and sorcerers. Those who could see into the hearts of others, and into the heart of nature, were called magicians and sorcerers. The magi were, as you point out, mystics. Merton had the same experience: his mysticism led him to that cosmic-centered consciousness. Had he lived in a different time (say, the 5th Inquisition time period), he would likely have been burned at the stake. Much has changed since then, and too much has not changed.
Beautiful exposition of the meaning of epiphany, mike. You penetrate to the deep level of the Cosmic Christ, as Mathew Fox titled his book – such a precious teaching for one like myself, who was seeking a more profound and true meaning in the scriptures and teachings of Christianity. Understandings such as Fox and yourself convey, helped save me from a sterile “scientific atheism” I had fallen into as a young man. Much thanks to all my teachers for that – it literally saved my life!