Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. If you were in New Orleans this time of the year, someone might offer you a slice of King cake. And if you knew what it was for, you would be very careful about accepting a slice. And even more careful about biting into it.
Because, somewhere within each of these ring-shaped confection studded with candied fruits and nuts, there is a teeny-tiny plastic figure of the Baby Jesus.
And if that teeny tiny plastic figure is in your slice, you are elected to give a party for your family and friends during the Mardi Gras season, which starts about now and continues until Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.
The Epiphany and Mardi Gras extend the celebration of Christmas and throw off the gloom of January and February chill and blues. Not Christmas Day, though, that is, because that feast was over about 4pm on December 25. But rather, the Christmas season—a period of celebration and reflection often-neglected and overlooked even by believers. Ready or not, though, it’s where we are as Church—and the season of Christmas officially ends next Sunday with the Baptism of the Lord.
So, in this extended season, today we celebrate the wonderful feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. We know it as Little Christmas, or the Visit of the Magi—the Three Kings—to the infant Jesus. We know and love the story well — right down to the names of the Magi Kings—which aren’t even in Scriptures even though they maybe ought to be. Three (were there really three?) Kings (were they really Kings) came from the East (where in the East? Does anyone know?) Following a star (was it a star or a super-nova of some kind?) to find the one born as King of the Jews.
We are told that after their encounter with the cagey and crafty evil King Herod (and he really was both, I can tell you for sure), they encountered Jesus the King in Bethlehem and presented him with gifts befitting the dignity of a monarch (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). Totally uninteresting for an infant. And mostly unpractical (except for the gold, which would certainly have come in handy) for his parents. Then, we are told that they were informed in a dream not to return to Herod, but to return to their country—to return home—by another way.
It’s this “other way” that intrigues me most, personally. How could anyone, after having been on such a great journey of faith and discovery, ever be quite the same again? It’s like spending a month in Antarctica. Or taking five years to sail around the world. Or Christmas at Yellowstone Park watching the capture, tagging, and release of wild wolves. Or climbing the face of El Capitain. You can be sure of a few things: You would never ever forget such an experience. You would never ever stop talking about it. And it would change your life-- not just once and for all, but once and for always for your entire life.
That’s what an encounter with God—a genuine encounter with Christ—does for us as believers. It transforms our lives, changes us, makes a real difference for all of our lives. We call that encounter a conversion. For some people, it’s contained in a discrete event—a moment of intuitive wonder, perception, and discovery. It could happen through a serious illness, a near-miss in an otherwise fatal accident. A pilgrimage. Or just a simple moment of prayer when you realized Someone was actually listening to you.
For most of us, though, it’s a much more subtle and gradual process. The progress may seem slow, subtle, and insubstantial. And it is. But over the long run, we reflect and realize: things have shifted and we can never ever go back.
Never back to our old ways, the old emotional and spiritual neighborhoods (or countries) of our lives.
For someone who makes the decision to stop some crazy behavior involving any sort of addictive detour—negative, destructive behavior of any kind—there is the hope and promise of Epiphany. For someone who has decided to let down their guard and let other people into their lives—healthy and affirming people—there is the promise of Epiphany. For someone who stops cackling on and on in a dreary mantra of fixed beliefs and preconceptions about the way the world and other people operate—and opens him/herself to another, more spiritual dimension of life—there is the promise of Epiphany.
For the believer, who decides to take the Scriptures to heart—to read, meditate, ruminate on its significance in in their lives—there is Epiphany. And for us Catholic Christians, in particular, to stop and consider that the Communion we bear and share is Christ the Lord present among us here and now, there is Epiphany here and now.
This is what The Epiphany is all about. The recognition that God lives in our world. And in each and every one of us. That Christ is for everyone. Everywhere. Any time and all the time. Period. Sooner or later. Quicker or more slowly. Here or somewhere else. There is the promise of the Epiphany of the Lord. Even right now. Yes, even right now!//