The Epiphany of the Lord

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Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

Whatever else the feast of the Epiphany may be, whatever role it plays in the life of Jesus, and whatever place of honor it holds in the calendar of the Church, every child knows its true meaning: Christmas vacation is over, and school is back. As a kid, just hearing the word “epiphany” used to make my stomach scrunch and my pulse jump, as I felt the primal nausea shared by all students when, after a long and happy break, school once again closed its claws and snatched us away from our sleds and snowballs and, more importantly, our televisions.

In fact, so much did this feast distress me as a child, one year my older brother and I developed a terrific plan to avoid returning to school, a plan firmly rooted inScripture.

Throughout the Christmas season, right up until today, dreams are key to the story of the coming of Christ. Joseph has several dreams, in which God tells him to marry Mary, to name their child Jesus, to go to Egypt, and then to come back. And as we just heard, the magi receive a dream warning them not to return to Herod. Listening to these stories, my brother, Joe, and I hit upon a plan. On this very day, the feast of the Epiphany, after we had returned home from Mass, we approached our mother and informed her that an angel had appeared to us in a dream and warned us not to go back to school. Of course, we were anxious to return, but the matter was out of our hands. God had spoken.

My mother, though not formally trained in theology, was a judicious and efficient interpreter of Holy Writ. She informed us that we would be going back to school, since it was exceedingly unlikely that we had received a genuine angelic visitation. We were shocked, shocked, at such disbelief, and protested vigorously. What if Joseph or the magi had disregarded their angelic dreams, we asked. What would have become of the Christ child if those recipients of dreams had not promptly complied with God’s demands? How could we, poor, humble servants of the Lord, do any less than Saint Joseph himself, and the wise men of the Orient?

Mom was unmoved. “Believe me,” she said, “that was not an angel in yourdreams.” 

When we asked how she could be so certain, she replied, “Because God respects the chain of command. If He doesn’t want you to go to school, an angel will appear to me, not to you.”

Despite our bad use of Scripture, my brother and I had at least listened closely enough to appreciate the importance of dreams in the Christmas season. Simply put, Jesus’ life depends upon dreams. Had Joseph followed through on his intention to divorce Mary, what would have happened to her and her unborn child? Who would have protected them? To whom could she have turned for help? And if Joseph and the magi had not done as God commanded them in dreams, could Jesus have escaped the wrath of Herod? Would not the Lord also have fallen beneath the evil king’s sword?

What does this mean for us? Consider that all the dreams we hear about in the Christmas season involve a break in someone’s plans. God asks men to put aside their own goals and aspirations, and to accept His will. Joseph had plans: they did not include being a young celibate husband, raising a child who was not his own. The magi had plans: they did not include an encounter with a homicidal king or a dangerous race to escape his jurisdiction. Thanks be to God, these dreamers gave up their plans, and humbly accepted God’s will, so that the Light might come into the darkness.

Schedules and plans are important. Bills are paid, medicines are developed, food is grown and delivered to stores, and airplanes get us where we’re going because people are organized. They compose lists, they set goals, they make preparations. Plans are good – but like every good thing, they can be abused, they can take over, they can become idols. We are busy, with calendars posted on the refrigerator and reminders beeping from smart phones, days brimming with demands on our time, with errands and appointments and commitments that just keep coming and coming. All of you probably know someone who begins every conversation with the words, “Oh my gosh, I have been running all day, you have no idea how busy I am, I haven’t had two seconds to myself…” I’m sure none of you start conversations that way, but all of us know people who do.

In the midst of our plans, are we ready to watch for God’s unexpected appearance? We who celebrate the Light of the world shining forth from a poor child in a humble home, we who celebrate God Himself becoming one of us, eating and drinking in our midst and dying at our hands, we of all people should know that the Lord shows up in unexpected places, in dreams and visions and transfigurations, and in the poor, in the sick, in the dying, in the lonely, in the stranger. But many times in this Christmas season, rushing about with a long list of things to do, have we found ourselves also rushing past the poor, half-consciously resolving to make a donation some time very soon? Have our busy days included a visit to the nursing home or hospital or cemetery?

Christ is inconvenient. When we come to Mass, he is here. When we go to confession, he is there. When we pick up the Bible, Christ is at our side. But Christ is also there when we don’t have the time, when our schedule is already full. Today, the feast of the Epiphany, is the feast of broken schedules, when our salvation was made possible because Joseph said “Yes” and the magi said “Yes,” even though they had other plans in mind.

Soon, you will meet Jesus Christ beyond these walls, at inconvenient times, through inconvenient people: A sick relative, a lonely neighbor, a former colleague without a job, a friend bent under mental illness, someone who has lost sight of Christ and His Church and His Sacraments. Soon you will meet Jesus Christ just as you are sitting down to watch the game or heading out to the store or getting ready to take a nap.

Let us pray at this Mass for the same gift God gave the wise men: the power to see an unexpected star in the midst of all the other usual lights in the nighttime sky. Let us pray for the same gift God gave St. Joseph: a heart full of love, ready to obey the Lord’s command. In the days ahead, let us be ready. Wherever he chooses to meet us, whatever plans he asks us to change, whatever schedules he demands we sacrifice, let us be ready to greet the unexpected Christ.