January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany
The Feast of the Epiphany reminds us that in their Gospels Matthew and Mark gather together stories about the childhood of Jesus, each pointing to different aspects of his significance. They both bring out the unique importance of Jesus in God’s plan. He is the Son of God come among us for the salvation of the world.
The feast of Christmas in the Western church picks out Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth in the stable when shepherds come to honour him. The liturgy and the hymns of the feast focus on the mystery of God’s joining us in the vulnerable humanity of Jesus.
In the Eastern Church the major feast is that of the Epiphany, which focuses on Matthew’s story of the coming of the Wise men to honour Jesus with gifts. The heart of the feast lies in the revelation of Christ to the non-Jewish world represented by the Magi. It recognises the stages of God’s showing himself to the world, first to the Jewish people and then, through the Jewish Jesus, to all people. It is a feast of light: Jesus is the light of the world and brings light to all who believe in him.
The Feast of the Epiphany is important because it reminds us of the different ways in which God has shown himself in the world and shows that these point to God’s greatest gift to us in Jesus. He is our way to God. But the feast also shows us that we do not own God. God speaks to us as he wishes. In the Gospel story God speaks through people whose wisdom came from religious traditions other than those of the Jews, God’s chosen people.
Today God continues to speak through the wisdom and religions of our world, and through them draws us closer to Christ in whom is all wisdom. God’s light falls on many places, draws people by many stars. We should bow with respect wherever we find light.
Like Christmas the Feast of the Epiphany also points to the way of suffering that the Son of God will take for our salvation. Luke’s Gospel alludes to it in the poverty of Jesus’ birth and in the forecast of a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is immediately at risk from Herod’s murderous designs and must go with his parents as a refugee to Egypt. Perhaps, too, the gift of myhrr, an opiate as well as a perfume, hints at his crucifixion.
Christmas and the Epiphany dwell on two different aspects of the coming of Christ into the world. That they form part of the one story is shown visually in the presence of both the shepherds and the Magi in the cribs of our churches.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.