Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-8; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12
Human growth is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Our bodies change and develop whether we like it or not. Cells replace themselves constantly giving each of us an entirely new body every seven years. Yet even though we might not be able to recognize ourselves in our baby pictures, we know there is somehow deep continuity between the infant we were and the person we saw in the mirror this morning when we were brushing our teeth.
That continuity is intimately connected with self-consciousness. It develops too. We no longer think of ourselves or of the world the way we did when we were children. Then everything seemed much simpler. We were the most important individuals in the world; the whole thing seemed to revolve around us. God was up there in heaven. We belonged to his church -- the only true one that existed. Our parents loved us. The policeman was our friend. The United States was unquestionably an agent for good in the world. . . . Now we might not be so sure of any of those formerly self-evident truths.
That's because we've grown intellectually and spiritually -- at least to a degree. Developmental psychologists tell us that the normal growth progression is from a self-centered consciousness to an ethno-centric consciousness to a world-centric awareness and possibly to a cosmic-centered understanding of reality. The ego-centric child truly does believe the world revolves around him or her. That's normal. Then comes the stage of ethno-centrism. Here horizons expand to include one's God, family, school, community, race, and country. At this stage, it seems as though those elements constitute the center of the universe. (Many people get stuck at this stage. They never grow out of it. They're even willing to kill other people to defend the superiority of the particular groups to which they belong.)
Many people however reach the stage of world-centrism. Here they realize that all of us are indeed created equal. God loves everyone -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists. S/he equally loves women and men, gay and straight. Ultimately, one is not American or Mexican, but a citizen of the world. That's world-centered consciousness. And that understanding is what's celebrated today on this feast of Epiphany.
The word epiphany means the appearance or manifestation of God. Today's feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of God announced in today's reading from the prophet Isaiah. He and today's responsorial Psalm 72 tell us a great deal about that God. S/he's not what ethno-centric believers expected or even wanted.
That's why Herod "and all Jerusalem with him" were "troubled" when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew and loved favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood. So they were "troubled" when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The kings claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God's Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.
The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul's letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three kings) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.
Matthew's story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice -- a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.
Herod's and Jerusalem's response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem's Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?
Epiphany also threatened Herod's position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.
No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star's cosmic message, present a friendly world-centered face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God's threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.
Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod's and Jerusalem's response to the "troubling" world-centered and cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism -- or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other's God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that's a kind of infanticide. It's a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today's feast of Epiphany.Epiphany calls us to wake up -- to grow up and to return home as the Magi did "by another way" that was not the way of ethno-centrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.