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The Epiphany of the Lord: Faith is a homecoming

Today’s readings: Isaiah 60, 1-6;  Ephesians 3, 2-3.5-6; Matthew 2, 1-12.

In our talk about faith and God, we tend to be too reductive and almost fundamentalist. We think of God as a God of Christians and different from the God of others, and we think narrowly of faith as if it were simply an assent to teachings transmitted. All this can be very misleading, and also of disservice to belief itself in the context of the ever-widening horizons of knowledge that today characterise the culture we live in.

The Jews at the time when the prophet Isaiah was writing believed in a God who belonged to them exclusively. This led to their being fundamentalist in their approach and relations with other peoples. In contrast, Isaiah hails the so-called messianic times and describes Yahweh’s presence in the world as light and glory, attracting people and nations towards Him.

At the time when Jesus was born, we have a repeat performance of this same old approach, with the whole of Jerusalem, as St Matthew reports, being disturbed with the idea of “wise men coming from the east” and led by a star in search of Christ. In the second reading from Ephesians, St Paul is spot on when he writes clearly “that pagans now share the same inheritance and that the same promise has been made to them”.

We badly need this broadening of horizons in our talk of God and faith. It is not God who belongs to us but we belong to Him. Otherwise we easily fall prey to the claim that we created God in our image and likeness, and not the other way round. God is profoundly beyond our pettiness, our religions, our churches, and all the imaginable boundaries we constantly try to fix for Him.

This is specifically what we should be celebrating on today’s feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany, just days after we have celebrated Christmas, is a wandering away from the provincialism of Bethlehem where Jesus was born towards the heights of the knowledgable world from where unknown but wise men come in search of him who is Lord, but led by their deep understanding of astrology.

Belief is a deeply human experience that matures in life, that depends on our openness and approach to life’s questions, and that always keeps us in search mode. God never changes our way of being and our way of experiencing Him. He attracts us to Himself just as plants are attracted by the light they are in search of and from which they find nourishment.

People can come to God and to belief through various ways and means. In his gospel account, St Matthew demonstrates this by highlighting the two wisdoms, that of strangers coming from far away and alien to the Jerusalem traditions, and that of the chief priests and the scribes, which was rooted in the Scriptures but which after all proved shortsighted.

Epiphany stands for manifestation. God manifests Himself, makes Himself present in the world to those who have the wisdom to see. “The glory of the Lord is rising on you,” writes Isaiah, “though night still covers the earth”.

There is a whole progression in today’s Scriptures, which gives account of how faith matures in life, provoked by deep questioning, tested by shattering experiences, and possibly blossoming in seeing God. That was what Israel went through when it experienced the shipwreck of its faith while in exile. Isaiah, in response,  provides his vision to educate the people, to make them “lift up your eyes and look round”.

At the time of Jesus, Israel again was exasperated in waiting and religiously frustrated, only to be guided by foreigners, in place of its own leaders, to where it needs to focus attention. Faith is about seeing God, and, as happened to the wise men from the east,  the moment our eyes are open there is nothing left but simply to kneel down in adoration. It is a coming home.

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