Of the four gospel writers, Matthew is the only one who tells the story of the wise men. I can see why the other three may have shied away for telling this story; it would have been a bit risky to do so. Many Jewish people then, like many Catholics now, thought they were the only ones who mattered and the only people that God loved. They believed that they were the only people that had the one true religion and all others were hopelessly lost. While most of us start that way (I certainly did), and it is a nice way to start, it’s just not true.
I hope every child begins their life feeling chosen and special. At some point, though, parents have to look into the eyes of that child and say, “You are special, but you’re not more special than anyone else.” The first Jewish people really did feel like the Chosen People of God. So, you can see why this story of three pagan wise men, may have come as an affront to their way of thinking. Written by Jews and mostly for Jews, this story probably met with great resistance in many of the Jewish circles.
The wise men are wise because they have the big picture. They see, and challenge us to see, beyond tribal thinking of groups and nations and even religions. These wise men had no intention of stepping on the toes of anyone, much less the Jewish people. All they wanted was truth. And when you hunger for truth long enough in your life, you hardly care where it comes from. When truth resonates, like a gong inside of you, it doesn’t matter that it started from a source beyond your group, your country or even your religion. Did you know that two plus two is always four regardless of whether a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Hindu or atheist tells you it is so?
These three lost, pagan new agers, who knew nothing about God, are the ones who pay homage to Jesus, while not one of the religious elite from Jerusalem—just 8 kilometers away—made the journey to Bethlehem. At great expense and time, the wise men stayed on the search. What we need are not just people who belong to religions but people who are searching for truth, who are searching for God, and don’t assume they’ve already found God. The fact that you are here week after week is a testament to your humility; you just know you don’t know it all. You just know you haven’t fully arrived but are still searching. You just know your truth is only the tip of the iceberg.
One of the things that happens, when we live from a bigger truth than our own private truth, is that it becomes attractive to others. In that first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah an attraction is going on. The setting is about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Isaiah’s own people, the Jewish people, were deported to Babylon where they basically lived as slaves. They were poor, far from home and forbidden to speak Hebrew or practice their Jewish faith. Isaiah, saw something beyond their misery. He saw them coming home but not just them as he says, “nations will come to your light and kings will come to the brightness of your dawn… the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” What God was doing for these once enslaved people would be attractive to the whole world. Isaiah talking like this was as risky as Matthew later telling the story of the wise men. Many of the Jews, in Isaiah’s time, saw themselves as an exclusive, elite group. They didn’t want to believe in a God who welcomed, in a willy-nilly fashion, people from all over the world to Jerusalem. They surely will water down the one, true faith. I’m not sure I want people from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba (and all their camels) invading my city. What Isaiah saw was the same thing that Matthew saw 600 years later. They both saw not a tribal God exclusive for the Jews but a Messiah for the entire world. They saw God, who with open arms, welcomes everyone who seeks the truth.
On the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday, we heard the gospel account of the condemned Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. He tells Pilate then, as he tells us now, of why he came to live among us. Jesus said to Pilate, “I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” That’s it in a nutshell. So now we know why he was born and lived among us–to speak the truth to us. It may be an inconvenient truth, when we don’t want to hear it, but it never stops being the Truth. He continues before Pilate, “Everyone (Jews, Gentiles, believers, atheists) who seeks the truth listens to my voice.”
Maybe Epiphany is the story of the immensity of God, and the immensity of Truth. It’s also an invitation to keep seeking the Truth in our own lives and be ready to welcome it no matter whose tongue it rolls off of. We are all bearers of some truth, seeking Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Here’s a true story of an epiphany told in order to keep us humble and open.
A white woman I have known for many years was on her first visit to a friend who was very ill in the Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. Not realizing that the cost of the meter-parking had doubled, she put in four quarters and got less than half an hour, which was not enough. Disappointed, she moved on, and for some reason, turned and saw an African American man putting quarters in her meter. She thanked him, and thinking she would get change in the hospital store to repay him after the visit, she said, “Will you be here when I come back?” She wasn’t prepared for his response. “I will,” he said, “I live here.” She followed his gaze and there was the large, cardboard box. He was a homeless man. It was a moment of respect, gratitude, and pure healing.
That’s the thing. When we’re just open enough, just seeking enough, epiphanies appear out of nowhere.
Fr. Phil Mulligan