What is separated in time and space can be joined in consciousness, in the mind. And what is joined in consciousness is separated into stories to communicate meaning. The reality of Christ, the presence of God-in-man, is the truth of humanity. We celebrate this reality in every Eucharist. For the sake of our understanding, we separate reality into parts. And so at Christmastide, the mystery of God in us, of incarnation, is separated into two inseparable realities: the birth of Jesus Christ, and then the Epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles. Even children can appreciate the parts, and can be nourished by reflecting on them. Our adult task is to bring the parts back together in the truth of consciousness and action: God in Christ is one. Christ brings the genuine believer into a living contact with God.
You may have noticed over the years that the evangelist Luke has no need for the feast of the Epiphany, because he has the equivalent experience take place in the scene he sets for Jesus’ birth. No Magi or astrologers are mentioned coming to see what God has done for humankind, but lowly shepherds, the “poorest of the poor,” representing all those who are open to what God is doing here and now, with minds not limited to beliefs about past events. The shepherds live in the present of God, under God, and so are moved by God to find His Presence in the new-born Christ. Open to God, we behold God by faith in Jesus. The evangelist Matthew has a different tale to tell, and wants to emphasize that Christ has come for all peoples (as the angels announce in Luke’s Gospel), and so has the Gentiles represented by three men, attuned to heavenly signs, journeying from the East. That the Magi recognize the divine Presence in the baby Jesus is artfully symbolized by their gifts, as described in our familiar Christmas carol, “We three kings”: incense pointing to divinity present; gold witnessing to the true ruler of humankind; myrrh foreshadowing the saving death of Christ for all.
From beautiful stories and rich symbolic meanings one needs to return again and again to the truth of spiritual experience: This is done best by sitting still in quiet meditation. For our foremost goal is not to tell stories or to “spread the word,” but to grow into a deeper and more lasting union with the God present to the consciousness of every human being open to receive him. Genuine openness is a demanding spiritual work, requiring prayer, study, recollection, meditation, action, love. That many refuse God’s gift of presence is symbolized by Matthew’s bloody story of the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem, ordered by the wicked Herod, a shrunken soul jealous for his own power. We may have obstacles in our hearts and lives that prevent us from living in the truth of divine Presence. And so our task includes reflecting on habitual and actual ways in which we fail to respond wholeheartedly, or let our awareness of God shining into our minds be obscured by the smoke of worldly preoccupations. The task of openness to the divine light shining into consciousness is endless. The essential activity is silent meditation, and many of us are too busy to sit still.
The reality of Epiphany is now—for you, for me. Our Christian and human duty is to enkindle in our hearts a flame of the fire of God’s love, which means allowing his love to flood in. What good is it for us to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, as we did on Christmas, and refuse to live in the light shining in? We live in the light by letting it enlighten us in meditation and wonder. If God is not here, then where could he be sought? The stable and the manger in Bethlehem are gone, or just rebuilt monuments to what God has done. But God is here and now; living in his light, love, peace is indeed the constant gift and burden of our lives.
Blessed New Year to each and to all.