Love is a many splendored thing. So, too is a diamond. The more skilled the diamond cutter, the more brilliant the diamond’s sparkle. Love and diamonds pair perfectly.
Christmas also has many facets. It is a bloom which unfolds over the twelve days that we call Christmastide. There is a song about the twelve days of Christmas. The twelfth night is the feast of Epiphany – meaning manifestation. Literally the super-showing which reveals all the facets of this diamond of Jesus’ presence amongst us.
With faith-polarised glasses you can read the signs of God’s love through the whole human story. For Christians, Jesus is the sign par excellence. Jesus, in turn, uses signs to point to his part in God’s plan. Take John’s story of the marriage feast of Cana. Jesus turns the Jewish Water of Purification into the wine of the new banquet God has planned for us. And in case we think this just a good party trick the narrator tells us that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory”. Look behind the story and you will see God’s glory – shared by Jesus. God is revealing his plan for us. This story dramatizes that plan. Jesus is the medium. A classic example of the medium being the message. It is an epiphany.
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is another facet of epiphany. Mark’s gospel tells us that “when Jesus came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’.” Mark makes this an epiphany for Jesus. Matthew and Luke extends that epiphany to us. That is why we used to celebrate Jesus’ baptism on the feast of the Epiphany.
Matthew’s gospel is the most dramatic presentation of an epiphany. Wise men come from the East searching for the child who is born King of the Jews. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel the Jesus Movement had spread to the four corners. The East was Syria, Iraq (Mesopotamia) where the action was. The whole world was starting to believe and follow. These wise men are astrologers. They study the heavens. Spotting a new star, they conclude that something portentous is at work. They bring gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for God and myrrh to embalm a body. With faith-tinted glasses they have spotted the epiphany that King Herod has missed. They even know that jeopardy is part of the story.
Did it really happen? Wrong question. What does the story mean? Right question. The storyteller uses the details of the story to get his reader to understand his main point. Matthew believes that it is fantastic that the whole world is getting the message that God is looking out for them. That is what drives him to tell this fantastic story. Luke has the same objective when he tells his story of the first Pentecost. As with any myth worthy of the name, the details serve the story. But the point of the story is true – truth on steroids. The storyteller’s wish is that you might come to see it as clearly as he does.
Two men looked out through the prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars. It is how we look on our experience that makes the difference. Herod saw mud. The Eastern Sages saw stars. No faith – nothing to see. But a questing look reveals facets of this diamond which is life flood-lit by love. You only get to know what was bubbling under the surface when the supernova erupts. That’s a real epiphany worth waiting for.
Eric Hodgens is a Catholic priest in Melbourne.