The grace of seeing
Today’s readings: Isaiah 60, 1-6; Ephesians 3, 2-3.5-6; Matthew 2, 1-12.
Jerusalem was already devastated when this text from St Matthew about the wise men coming from the east was written. Besides, an increasing number of new gentile converts were adding to the believing community. These were two quite disturbing factors for Israel, particularly for those who staunchly held to the view that God’s faithfulness was the exclusive trademark of the chosen people. Matthew’s narrative and the theological elaboration of St Paul’s thought in his letter make a radically different point and broaden the implications of the Hebrew prophecies.
The grace of seeing and acknowledging God’s works cannot be limited to a people or to one culture. God’s grace is universal, offered to all. There are books other than the Bible that can convey God’s word. Christianity is not mono-cultural but includes diversity, pluralism of cultures and traditions.
In the aftermath of those early centuries, history has always been divided on the real significance of the Jesus story. From his birth to date, the one prophecy about him that always held its ground was that he was meant to be a sign of contradiction. Many believed in him and worshipped him as Lord and still do. But he was also rejected by many throughout the centuries and for many different reasons.
The long and winding journey of the Church’s coming to terms with the mystery of Christ has always been heavily marked by belief and heresy. And it was never meant to be otherwise. As St Paul writes in the second reading to Ephesians, “the knowledge of this mystery” can only be the fruit of a revelation through the Spirit. It is never a knowledge that can be acquired through research or simply through establishing facts.
The good news that the Christian community has from the very beginning been entrusted to hand on is a grace not a story. If it were just a story, it would have been relatively easy for the believing communities in time to proclaim Jesus. It would have belonged to history, to a factual narrative that could hardly be denied or contested. But it is a grace, it is about God revealing Himself, it is an unfolding of something that belongs to the realm of the Spirit.
This uncovering on the part of God of His own self is more than just a discovering of something hitherto unknown. It is an encounter that cannot occur on the level of what we know. The chief priests and the scribes of the people whom King Herod brought together to enlighten him knew that something was about to happen. But their knowledge was bookish and the written prophecies remained void of meaning for them.
It was different with the wise men who came from the east. They had intuition, they were basically seekers, they longed for what they were after, they journeyed until they found it. Theirs was a definitive, transforming encounter, a turning point that changed their lives radically to the point that, as St Matthew writes, “they returned to their own country by a different way”.
We cannot experience this encounter with Jesus as Lord and stick to our old ways. Just like the wise men, we can offer our gifts only to discover that the gift that we in turn receive is far richer. The encounter with who Jesus really is enriches our existence, blesses our being, and fills with hope the journey of our lives. It makes us return to who we are, ‘to our own country’ as in the case of the wise men, only to discover that now there is more depth and wisdom in the way we see things.
The right perspective from which to grasp the meaning of today’s feast of the Epiphany is not putting the Church at the centre and seeing people flocking towards it from afar. Today’s readings make our mindset go through a process of defragmentation to acknowledge that there is ample wisdom and authentic worship beyond the confines of our religious tradition and system. It is God’s universality that is the measure of everything, not religion as we conceived it through time.