Epiphany celebrates Christ’s faith-based outreach

Father John A. Kiley

The solemnity of Epiphany is to Christmas what the solemnity of Pentecost is to Easter. Christmas and Easter were personal events in the life of the incarnate Son of God.

At Christmas, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity arrives from heaven clothed in a full human nature. That same human nature that erred through the sins of Adam and Eve, that same human nature that resisted the gifts of God through Israel’s infidelities, is now made one with God himself through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ the man, God has truly become Emmanuel. Through Christ, God is manifestly with man: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel,” as the carol exclaims.

The solemnity of Epiphany happily extends the incarnation of Jesus Christ by announcing that God has not just become one with Christ’s human nature, but actually wants to become one with every individual man and every single woman. Epiphany extends the nearness of God from the stable at Bethlehem to the villages, towns, cities and states of the entire world. Isaiah courageously predicted this universality of salvation centuries before Christ: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” St. Paul resoundingly confirms the largesse of the ancient oracle: “… the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Even today the church’s liturgy recalls this universal dignity in the Second Canon: “Have mercy on us all, we pray, that … we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life. …” Just as Christmas celebrates the oneness of God with human nature in Christ, so Epiphany celebrates the oneness of God with all mankind in Christ.

What Christmas and Epiphany promise, Easter and Pentecost fulfill. Jesus was always a man of the Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit. The Spirit descended on Christ at his baptism. He was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tested. His trek to Jerusalem was guided by the Spirit. He prayed always in the Spirit. But at Easter the Spirit of Jesus’ inner life shone through every fiber of his being. His body and limbs were aglow with Spirit. Spiritually fulfilled, Christ suffered no more but was resplendent with divine life.

Once again, the promises of God do not end with the glorification of Christ but happily proceed to the glorification of the Christian community, Christ’s church. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit that transformed Christ from suffering servant to victor over sin and death now transforms the first company of believers from fear-filled recluses to Spirit-filled proclaimers of the Word. The same Spirit that was resplendent in Christ at Easter becomes resplendent in the church at Pentecost.

Both the Christmas to Epiphany cycle and the Easter to Pentecost cycle evolve from a thoughtful, interior, personal appreciation of the person of Christ into an enlightened, exterior, public sharing of the person of Jesus Christ. The Magi first prostrated themselves in the presence of Christ, acknowledging him as the newborn king of the Jews, the newfound king of mankind and their own personal king. Having appreciated Christ has their Lord and Savior, the visitors from the East are equipped to bring the Good News of salvation to the wider world, that same Good News that was sadly rejected by the Jerusalem leadership.

At Pentecost, too, the disciples had first to absorb the full meaning of Christ’s resurrection, pondering this great event for nine days in the upper room. Gradually the Spirit penetrated the disciples’ mind and hearts bursting out into ecstatic prayer and effective preaching. The personal victory of Christ at Easter became the universal victory of the church at Pentecost. The missionary vocation of the church, the evangelizing ministry of God’s people, foreshadowed at Epiphany was made operative at Pentecost. The catholicity of the church had commenced.

In proclaiming the Year of Faith 2012, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the need for both personal commitment and communal zeal. “In rediscovering his love day by day, the missionary commitment of believers attains force and vigor that can never fade away. Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy. It makes us fruitful, because it expands our hearts in hope and enables us to bear life-giving witness.”

Epiphany celebrates the faith-based outreach that originates in Christ and draws others into union with Christ.