Epiphany is God’s sending of His light into the world

  • December 27, 2011

Epiphany of the Lord (Year B) Jan. 8 (Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

Just what is Epiphany and why is it important? In some Christian traditions it is celebrated as Christmas, reflecting an ancient and venerable tradition. In the West, the feast is understood as noting the manifestation of the Lord to the gentiles. But that really tells us very little.

“Epiphany” means “manifestation” and in antiquity was usually associated with the manifestation or appearance of a god or divine being. There were rulers and tyrants who claimed to be divine manifestations, the most notorious being the insane megalomaniac Antiochus Epiphanes. He tried to destroy the Jewish culture and religion in the second century BC, igniting the revolt of the Maccabees.

Epiphany reveals two very important things to us. First of all, we see what a God-filled person is really like — compassionate, merciful, just and non-violent. The ungodly nature of all human models of power and domination is laid bare. Secondly, God is revealed as universal and non-exclusive, embracing all of humanity with compassion and mercy. God is not limited or defined by ethnicity, nation, class or ideology.


Christianity did not invent this universal understanding of God. It was already developing in the third portion of Isaiah that was addressed to the disheartened exiles after their return to Jerusalem in the late sixth century BC. Most of the city and the temple were still in ruins and the nation enjoyed very little political power — only what their Persian masters were willing to give them. The nation seemed degraded and a mere shadow of the glorious past. But the prophecy promises that great things lay in the future — the divine mission of Israel and Jerusalem has just begun.

As is often the case, the light begins to burn most brightly when the darkness is most profound. This light will guide all of humanity along the path of God. In the centuries leading up to the Common Era, Judaism was admired and respected by many throughout the ancient world for its rigourous ethical code, supportive community and respect for human life.

God has always moved through human history in the direction of unity and wholeness. When the moment is right, when humanity has grown in maturity and experience, God reveals another aspect of the divine nature. The author of Ephesians celebrates the wonderful plan that God kept under wraps until the coming of Jesus: humanity is one, and God calls all into relationship with the divine and with one another. Even in our own time God continues to shake loose human accretions. God is not European, white, male or even Christian in our sense of the term. These are lessons we still struggle to take to heart and apply.

The group of sages or holy men who came to visit the Christ child were not of His people or His religion. In a sense, they were strangers and outsiders; in another sense, they were definitely family. They belonged to those who seek what is good and holy and yearn for union with the transcendent. They discovered the coming of Jesus in the stars — astrology — very strange by our lights but considered quite proper and natural in the ancient world. God will use any means for self-revelation and to reach humanity and does not really care about the labels, boundaries and categories that are human in origin. The visitors were attracted to the light and represent that portion of humanity that is oriented towards God. Herod is terrified of the light and in his fear and paranoia wants to snuff it out before it can begin to do its work. He represents the darker side of humanity — those who are enemies of peace or who live out patterns of domination, cruelty and exploitation.

Epiphany is a pattern by which God continually sends the divine light into the world to lead humanity to wholeness. If Epiphany were occurring today, where would the “star” lead? Who would be the visitors from afar and where would they come from? What would be the means used to find the traces of divine activity in the world? What would the message be? What human attitudes would oppose the light? Who would be terrified of the light? Let us not be too quick to answer.