Feast of Epiphany: glimpsing the beauty of God
Posted: Tue, 05 Jan 2021 12:14
As we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB looks at our festive traditions, and what the visit of the three kings tells us about sharing our own gifts, and taking Jesus and his truth with us through the world today. Image: adapted from an image by Alejandra Jimenez on Pixabay
Today, we remember Matthew's reflections on bringing the Gospel message to a broader world through the visit of 'the three kings'. On Christmas Day, Luke presented the story of the poor shepherds visiting Jesus as they followed the instructions of the angels, the messengers from God. Today, we see that 'social bubble' of Jesus expanding to include these non-Jewish foreigners—an indication of the universal reach of the Gospel. In many cultures today, gifts are exchanged in memory of the gifts offered to the infant: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In recent years, the practice of chalking the door of the house or church has become common as a sign of blessing for the new year. This year, as always, the pattern is simple: 20 + C + M + B + 21. The year is obviously represented by the numbers and the + represents the cross. The letters represent the names given to the 'kings' according to tradition: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, but they are also an abbreviation of the Latin blessing 'Christus mansionem benedicat', which means, May Christ bless this house. This custom, often accompanied by simple processions of children with their parents, to express the blessing of Christ through the intercession of the three wise men, is an occasion for gathering offerings for charitable and missionary purposes. Why not ask that blessing on your own home and family today?
In the West, the feast also marks 'Twelfth Night', the traditional end of the Christmas holiday, when the tree, lights and decorations are taken down, and our homes become 'ordinary' again. In my own family tradition, we see this feast as 'Little Christmas' or 'Nollaig na mBan', which translates from the Irish Gaelic as 'Women's Christmas.' In Irish tradition, this was the day when the men of the house gave the women a day off from household chores—things were not so PC back in the day! If January 6th is 'Little Christmas', then December 25th is definitely 'Big Christmas' when the women did all the preparation for Christmas on top of the normal work on the farm. God rested on the seventh day, but the women of Ireland did not get to do the same until the twelfth and last day of Christmas! In modern Ireland, the tradition now includes a chance for mums, grandmas, aunties and cousins to have a day out together, usually ending with a good meal out.
Anything that celebrates the goodness of others is to be applauded-today—do give thanks for the women and girls in your life. Today, as a Church, we need to affirm the strong contributions made by women and girls—perhaps also to reflect on what still needs to be done. In Celtic spirituality, there is an awareness of the God who is all around; in the ancient Irish Church, there was also a realistic appreciation of the gifts of ALL in the Church—men and women worked together to further the gospel. The Celtic spiritual tradition sees time as 'eternity in disguise', and that special feast days allow us to glimpse that beauty of God. These are transfiguration moments that we should celebrate and enjoy to the full, as the poet, John O'Donohue tells us:
They embraced the day as a sacred space. Christmas reminds us to glory in the simplicity and wonder of one day; it unveils the extraordinary that our hurried lives conceal and neglect. We have been given such immense possibilities. We desperately need to make clearances in our entangled lives to let our souls breathe. We must take care of ourselves and especially of our suffering brothers and sisters. Without realising it, we are so privileged.
Excerpt from the unpublished collection of John O'Donohue, posted on the Facebook page managed by his literary executor and family.
This Christmas season, we were unable to share the ever-popular nativity play, which allows us space to 'let our souls breathe' as we enjoyed this traditional experience. When we were children growing up, some of us cherished the role of one of the three kings, in the finest robes from the dressing up cupboard—it was certainly much better than putting a tea-towel on your head to be a shepherd or wearing a white nightie as an angel! Between them, Mathew and Luke have directed a narrative that is central to the Christmas story and to our celebration of the feast—it gives us the script for the nativity play. Mark is so keen to share his gospel, that we join the story of Jesus only when he is an adult. John is reflective and poetic; he wants to present a gospel that will examine more deeply and cover significant aspects of ministry that we are invited to share:
Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Jn 1: 16-18
The Magi were seekers of the truth and, guided by the star, they found it in a child in the poor village of Bethlehem. Again, this is a living sign of what will be the ministry of the adult Jesus: learning from those on the margins. Even though they were so wise, they got things wrong and ended up in the wrong place; as we journey through 2021, let us pray that we get to the RIGHT places at the right time. As 2020 has taught us, sometimes we are guided in directions that we never thought possible. While it has brought heartache and problems, it also helped us to discover our inner strength and power.
The Magi knew that wherever they went, they carried the child, Mary and Joseph with them, no matter how separated or how far. They were able to carry Jesus through wars, through trials, through pandemic, through joys, and especially through happiness. The one thing that they learned on leaving the village was that Jesus did not stay in Bethlehem; Mary did not stay in Bethlehem; Joseph did not stay in Bethlehem; they take up their lives in those who reach out to them in love and faith. This is the beauty of our faith: it will take us to exciting places this coming year—if we are open. It is apt that we use Jan Richardson's 'Blessing in the Chaos' as our prayer for the rest of the week. We can still find God, and others:
Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
from 'Blessing in the Chaos', by Jan Richardson, in: The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief