January 6th is the Solemnity of the Epiphany. The word comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance.” In the Western Church, We typically associate Epiphany with the visitation of the gift-bearing Magi or Wise Men or Three Kings to the Holy Family and newborn child Jesus. In the United States, the feast has become overshadowed by Christmas, though in many cultures, either the two are celebrated together (usually on Epiphany), or Epiphany is the more celebrated of the two.
So which Nativity scene did you set out this year? The simple classic version with the Holy Family, or was it the Epiphany edition with the Magi? Or maybe yours, like ours, borrows characters from our toy box; Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some sheep…a certain articulate little cartoon pig and that beloved Space Ranger, to name two additions. Though the account of the visit of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel is brief and lacking in detail, the encounter offers profound points for reflection.
My wife observed the other day that Nativity scenes in Italy (we live in a town outside Rome) tend to be far more elaborate than the classic Holy Family versions we see in the United States. To be sure, there are to be found among the lawns of our great nation plenty of creches with the additional players—angels, shepherds, the usual. But Nativity scenes in Italy are more like a Where’s Waldo of the Infancy Narrative. They are closer to the Christmas Village scenes that were popular in the 90’s (my grandmother had an impressive collection). Many of the scenes in Italy even have moving parts. A man chops wood, a woman hauls a bucket from the well, merchants point to their wares in the marketplace, the local tavern alive with drunkards tipping back and forth in their chairs. There’s a lot to look at. Part of the fun of these is searching among the ordinary human events for the Magi weaving their way through the village and of course, for the Holy Family, usually huddled together off in an unremarkable corner of the scene. More often than not, you have to really look to see.
There’s something to that. You have to look, to see. I had never considered this before, since most of the Nativity scenes I was familiar with had the child Jesus front and center—no missing him. But busy Nativity scenes reflect the real difficulty of recognizing God’s presence, of listening for His will, and of seeing Christ in our neighbor. This is, of course, one of the very points of the Epiphany, that no one was looking but a few unlikely pagans from far away. And they found Him. They found Him not on their own steam as if they looked harder or smarter than anyone else. They saw because they allowed themselves to be led by Him through the star. We will not do it on our own because we cannot do it o our own (heresy!). But we can allow ourselves to be led by Him.
“Pleased as man with man to dwell…”
One of my favourite lines from all the Christmas music I’ve been passively absorbing for the past few weeks comes from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sings” and it’s not even a complete sentence. It’s the line, “Pleased as man with man to dwell…” The incarnation hallows our humanity. The Eternal God breaks into time and space and walks around in it, showing us how it’s done. Flesh and bone and time and space is where God does His work because that’s where we live. The classical imagery is radical enough…a baby, a virgin, barn animals…but that’s the tip of the theological iceberg. The real scandal of Christmas is that God became a human being. A crying, stinky, dirty, sweaty, tired, eating, drinking, hungry, thirsty, son, friend, houseguest, rabbi, etc. etc. MAN. Those who expect God to show Himself in thunder and blinding flashes of lightning have it all wrong. Let us purge every vestige of the neo-Gnosticism and anti-materialism we so often fall prey to. God works in and through humanity and history. That’s why the Church has a social teaching and that’s why civil and political institutions matter. The Incarnation and revelation of the Christ to the nations through the Magi takes place at a certain time, surrounded by political maneuvering, in the middle of the grit of human experience. Augustine puts it this way:
“He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word Who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He Who fills the world lays in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness.” (Sermon 187)
We are Born to Die
I don’t mean this in the way it’s been said, “the moment you’re born you start to die”, or however that bit of non-inspiration goes. I mean we were created to lose ourselves. Or more accurately, to give ourselves away. The Magi, Matthew tells us, “opened their treasures”. They gave the best of what they had, risking even death in their journey by inquiring first of Herod where the newborn King of the Jews was to be found. Their gifts also foreshadow the destiny of this newborn child at Whose feet they are laid. Incense, recalls his priestly office and sacrificial destiny, born to give Himself as an offering; Myrrh, used in embalming, in medicine, and in preparing oil of anointing, foreshadows his burial his and status as the Anointed, Who heals the wounds of sin and division; and Gold, speaks to His kingship, but not the kind of kingship the Jews or the world were looking for. There is more death imagery in the Nativity account than an Emily Dickinson poem. This handing over of self shows us the way of love we are all made for. We are born to die.
Focus on the Family
The conversion of culture must come through the conversion of the family to the image of the Holy Family. There is no way around it. The Magi find not a king enthroned nor a meditating guru, but a child in a family. If there’s anything that should be painfully obvious to us by now it’s that family matters. The family is not accidental to our existence and identity. It is the first place our identity is revealed and nurtured, the first place love is encountered and thus, the first place God is revealed. Save the family, save the world.
This Changes Everything
The Magi are changed from their encounter. We don’t hear anything else about them (one tradition suggests that they were martyred and their relics now reside in the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany) but we are told they don’t go back the way they came, for fear of Herod. There’s another point here though. They cannot go back to their former life because everything is different now. They have found not only what they sought in following the star, but their heart’s deepest desire. Once we have seen what life means, we cannot go back the way we came. Everything is different now. Now, everything begins anew. Thank you, Italian Epiphany scenes.