This is Epiphany Sunday. It’s a good time to revisit our understanding of the word epiphany. The dictionary assigns two meanings, one religious and one secular. The first defines epiphany as a Christian festival held in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ. The second says an epiphany is a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. If you study the mass readings for today’s feast you realize that both definitions can apply.
My epiphany about the epiphany is that its significance lies more in the gifts God gave us for his son’s birthday than in the gifts of the magi. Yes, the magi brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh as signs of their respect, but these gifts were given in return for God’s greater gift to them: faith. Faith is what moves people to do difficult things against great odds—like travel long distances to meet the bringer of man’s salvation. But that saving faith represents only half of the gift God gave mankind on that first Christmas. The other half is something God was returning to mankind long after we rejected it: freedom.
Faith and freedom combined represent salvation—which humanity lost in the Garden of Eden. First we lost our freedom when evil introduced fear—which then caused us to lose our faith—in God and in each other. Once Adam and Eve lost their faith, fear rushed in to fill that void. Fear became their legacy. It’s why Cain slew Abel and why from then on mankind needed laws to protect us from each other. Evil made mankind feel the need for such laws and to believe we needed to take control of our own destiny for fear that, if there was a God, we were forever estranged from Him. In the process of depriving God of the faith man once had in Him, all faith slipped out of our grasp—along with our freedom.
After that loss, the Holy Spirit worked through the prophets to return one of those gifts to mankind: faith. Today’s first reading shows Isaiah’s gift for rallying faith among those who wanted it back (IS 60:1-6):
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”
This was enough to revive hope inside the hearts of many, but fear continued to plague the rest of the world—especially those who trapped themselves in mankind’s complex legalisms. Then Jesus came into the world and restored the freedom mankind had lost. He did that by reaffirming God’s elegantly simple yet profound law of laws: love God and your neighbor. In our second reading (EPH 3:2-3A, 5-6), Paul tells the Ephesians that the freedom that derives from this basic moral code is now available to all of mankind, not just a few. According to Paul, this is the grace God has granted us:
“Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
That’s good news for every person who receives the gift of faith and is able to enjoy the freedom that comes with it. They are the ones whose fear was replaced by the courage to leave their existence in God’s hands. But those who love power must also hold onto fear—their own fear of losing that power and the fear among those under that power. That was Herod’s greatest fear when, in our gospel reading (MT 2:1-12), he heard from the magi that they wished to pay their respects to someone above his laws.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?,” they asked. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Ironically, Herod had plenty of company in their collective isolation from faith and freedom. But those are gifts, and as such, must be received. The fearful are incapable of doing so. The faithful embrace the freedom to do so—along with the promise of salvation.