The solemnity of the Epiphany celebrates three events in the early life of Jesus Christ. Shortly after Christ’s birth, as St. Matthew notes, the wise men from the East arrived to offer the newborn King of the Jews their threefold gifts.
But more important, the three visitors bowed down before the baby Christ “and did him homage.” The Magi displayed physically and visually their profound appreciation of the person of Jesus. They manifestly adored him for the edification of all who witnessed their arrival.
St. John the Baptist was next in line to declare publicly and audibly his dawning faith in the true nature of his cousin Jesus. The Baptist was a popular figure in his own right. Crowds came out from Jerusalem to seek his counsel and to undergo his ritual bath. John had access to the king’s ear and his opinions were respected, if sometimes feared. And yet St. John, for all his celebrity status, was compelled to point the finger of fame away from himself and direct it toward Jesus. “Behold the Lamb of God,” St. John famously declared, “Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!” St. John’s public act of faith in the true nature of his cousin Jesus – newly arrived on the religious scene – was an almost premature announcement before the world that the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, had finally arrived in human history. Like the Magi, John bore open witness to the sublime nature of Jesus.
The wedding feast at Cana similarly called early public attention to the entry in history of the exalted Son of God. Jesus’ life until this happy episode had been hidden in Nazareth. Now at his mother’s prodding, Jesus exercises his divine prerogative and turns water into wine for the benefit of the hapless couple embarrassed in front of their guests. The replenished wine supply not only impressed the head waiter who declared the miraculous vintage to be the “best,” but, more important, Jesus’ first miracle awakens the virtue of faith in his newly gathered disciples. As the direct result of Jesus’ kindness, St. John records in his Gospel that, “his disciples began to believe in him.” Again the true nature of Jesus Christ is revealed through evident, notable and perceptible activity.
The bodily adoration from the Magi, the audible act of belief from the lips of the Baptist, and the faith-inspiring awe of the newly recruited disciples at the abundance of wedding wine not only suggest the Divine excellence of Jesus Christ as Son of God, these triple events from the early life of Jesus begin to reveal the plan of God the Father for the Christian religion. Christianity is not simply fine thoughts to be pondered quietly in the isolation of one’s room. Nor is Christianity merely a warm feeling or a threatening judgment that comforts the body or pricks the conscience in a chapel’s solitary pew. Yes, Christianity is indeed very personal. It penetrates to the core of one’s being. But the lesson of Epiphany is that while Christianity might be personal, it is not at all private. Just as integral to Christianity as personal piety and private devotion are public adoration, vocal acts of faith, and communal testimonies by believers before the world.
The Christian religion must not only be sensed interiorly; it must be expressed physically in sacrament and symbol, in Scripture and instruction, in word and work, in charity and justice, in culture and customs, in art and architecture, in every worthy human enterprise.
“The Word became flesh” and continues to become flesh through the church. God the Father did not leave Jesus’ Divine nature to the imagination. God the Father determined that Jesus’ true inner being and his true mission would be revealed in perceivable events and appreciated through earthly strategies. Gold, frankincense and myrrh have told much about Jesus Christ down through the ages. Cana’s water jars spilling over with wine are eloquent tributes to the true meaning of Jesus. The humble, public allegiance of the illustrious Baptist toward his unknown cousin is a powerful inducement for any who would believe.
The lesson of Epiphany is that the true Christian, like Christianity itself, does indeed wear his heart on his sleeve. The true Christian’s every action declares publicly and powerfully and perceptibly his personal commitment to Jesus as Messiah, Savior and Lord.