January 2, 2022 – Epiphany of the Lord
Today we celebrate Epiphany and the most foundational truth of the Christian life can be found in today’s gospel. But it is a lesson that we often miss. We miss it because we are not looking in the right place. In today’s gospel, it is difficult to keep your eyes off of the wise men. They are foreign and mysterious. They come from the East in their exotic robes, riding their peculiar camels, following the star. But when we focus on the wise men, the theme of the gospel is about searching, finding, and the giving of gifts. These themes, however, are not the deepest truth of today’s feast. To find that truth we must not look at what the wise men do, but at what Jesus does. And what does Jesus do? He receives the gifts that the wise men offer. This action is arguably the first action of Jesus ever recorded in the gospels: to accept the gifts that are given. It is an action of profound significance because it is an illustration of what is most fundamental about the Christian life – that being a Christian is not about what we do, but what we accept – it is not about giving but about receiving.
This is a difficult lesson for us to learn because we persist in the misconception that our faith is primarily about us, about what we do or what we fail to do. But our faith is not primarily about what we do, but rather about what God does. God has made us and saved us. God’s actions are the actions that are at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, the stance of a Christian is primarily a stance of openness, a stance of receptivity. It is only when we can receive the gift that God offers that we know what salvation is truly about.
The gifts offered by the wise men – gold, frankincense, myrrh – symbolize what we are to receive. The gift of gold is a gift of great value and worth. It points to the value and worth of our own lives. We are persons of great worth. God has made us so. God has instilled in us a dignity that is a part of who we are. The gift of frankincense is a mysterious perfume, and it points to the mysterious action of God in our lives. God has a plan. God has a plan for us and for the world. God is working to unfold that plan through all the relationship and opportunities of our lives. It is a mystery we cannot control. We can only accept it and cooperate with it. Myrrh is the ointment of death, and it points to the unavoidable pain which is a part of all of our lives. None of us can avoid evil or pain, whether that come from hurt, rejection, failures, sickness, or grief. But in faith we believe that such pain, as real and as deep as it is, cannot negate our worth and dignity as people. Nor can it frustrate or derail the mysterious plan of God that somehow moves forward despite all that opposes it.
Being a faithful Christian is not about doing. It is about receiving. This is why the first action of Jesus in the gospels is to receive the gifts of the wise men. Jesus receives gold, frankincense, and myrrh to remind us that we need to receive the value of our own person, the mystery of God’s action in our life, and the reality that pain and evil cannot stop the plan of God. Those are three gifts we need to receive, for it is only by accepting them that we can follow Christ and fulfill the promise of Christmas.