"We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage"
(Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
"Epiphany" means "manifestation" or "revelation", especially a manifestation of the divine or the sacred. And - as the readings for today's Mass make obvious - our Christian feast of the Epiphany refers to the way that the real God has been made manifest in an unsurpassable way in the person of Jesus.
To begin Mass let us acknowledge the times when we have been blind to the signs of God's presence and activity and ask him for pardon and for a strengthening of our faith.
As I was saying at the start of Mass, the word "epiphany" means some sort of revelation or manifestation of the divine, of the sacred. The ancient pagan religions used the word "epiphany" to refer to the various appearances of their gods. But of course in the context of the Christian faith it refers to Jesus' Incarnation, the appearance of God in human form.
The way the writers of the gospels saw it the Incarnation came at the end of a long process, conducted by God - or a long journey of discovery on the part of the Hebrew people - in which, over the course of centuries, God manifested more and more of himself and they learned more and more of what he was like.
During those centuries, covered by the various books of the Old Testament, belief in various pagan Gods was still strong among Israel's neighbours - the Canaanites, the Philistines and so on. Often there was something primitive and brutal about these gods, and the same was true to a certain extent about the more sophisticated religions that the Greeks and the Romans had, at a later period.
The pagan religions were often full of ideas about magic and attempts to control the material world. The gods were often embodiments of the forces of nature, who had to be appeased and flattered with sacrifices of different kinds. Ideas of the sacred and the divine grew out of very human motives of power and manipulation.
As well as that, the pagan religions often had the function of buttressing the position of the powerful sections of society - the king, the emperor, the pharaoh and their cohorts. They acted as a civic religion, underpinning the structures of society.
Whereas the God of the Chosen People, the God of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", was completely different. Over the centuries, the picture of God that emerged among the people of Israel wasn't a picture rooted in human greed and the desire for power over others and so on, the way the pagan religions were.
The picture which was built up was a picture of a God who displayed a completely different set of qualities. And not only did he show a different set of qualities in himself, his idea of being worshipped was to invite or demand that his people display the same qualities themselves.
Through individuals like Moses, through the Jewish Law, through the preaching of the prophets, God showed himself to be a God of goodness, mercy, compassion, holiness, love. Totally different from the deities of the pagan faiths.
And again, far from being the sort of figure who underpinned the positions of powerful and privileged groups in society, the God of Israel demanded faithfulness to his Covenant.
In practice that meant that there had to be honesty and integrity in personal relations, justice in society at large - protection for the weak, a divine ban on exploitation of the poor. Speaking through the prophets God subjected the political and religious leaders of his society to very pointed criticism whenever they fell away from the values of his Covenant.
The feast of the Epiphany, set within the Season of Christmas, commemorates the fact that this was the same God who became human in the person of Jesus.
When we say that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh what we mean is that Jesus showed these qualities of God, and put God's love and holiness into practice, in his person and in the course of his ministry.
And again, of course, he was completely unlike any of the pagan notions of what God was like. He refused to embrace worldly power in any way, he was completely detached from money and possessions, he practiced what he preached about always forgiving and never retaliating, and eventually sacrificed his life - all as a way of "manifesting" what the true God was like and what God's love is like.
When we turn specifically to the gospel passage for today's Mass and look at the figures of the three wise men, the "Magi" or the astrologers who come searching for Christ at the time of his birth, I think St. Matthew wants us to see them as representatives of the whole of humanity, all the members of the human race who weren't part of the Chosen People in the Old Testament, who up until the time of Jesus, hadn't had this image of God revealed to them yet.
The three wise men are symbols if you like of all those "pagans" who are genuinely searching for the real God, struggling with all sorts of partial and even faulty notions of what God is actually like.
St. Matthew's point is that the Magi find the real God when they find the person of Christ. Not only that, but as the passage said more than once, they acknowledge him as God, and "do him homage". So that for both Jew and pagan, Matthew is saying, genuine devotion to God from now on takes the shape of faith in Christ. There's no need now to struggle with various shadowy or man-made notions of the divine.
Those seem to me to be the two main aspects of the Epiphany: (1) the God of the Bible is the true God, revealed to us fully in the person of Christ, and (2) for all those genuinely searching for the true face of God, the path leads to Christ.
We live at a time, or in a part of the world, where against the background of a long and no doubt chequered history of Christianity, people have on the whole rejected the Christian faith. But that doesn't seem to mean that everyone has become like an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century atheist or free-thinker.
Instead there seems to be a growing interest in the occult and astrology and various forms of pagan beliefs, so that - much to the annoyance of the atheists - there's a revival of the sort of primitive and magical notions about the divine realm that were rejected by the writers of the Bible three thousand years ago and more.
Our debate today, as Christians, isn't only with people who don't belief in God, but with people who have a totally different picture of what God is like or a different way of understanding the realm of the divine, the sacred or the supernatural.
As in the past a lot of the pagan beliefs today are based on frankly selfish motives: people want to manipulate reality to their own advantage, sometimes with considerable malice towards others.
Our image of God, revealed ultimately in Christ and in the message he preached, is still worth defending, against what are, after all, old rivals. In these circumstances St. Matthew's image of the astrologers from the East worshipping the Word of God made flesh has more relevance than ever.