January 8, 2017

Homily | The Epiphany of the Lord, January 8, 2017, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut
In 2013, I read Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. It is a philosophical analysis focused on that instant that marks the transition from not understanding to understanding.

“Epiphany” sometimes denotes that kind of “enlightenment,” a sudden grasp or revelation—an “Aha!” experience.

The Magi somehow grasped the significance of the star. First they had some kind of insight. But this was deeper than an intellectual insight. It was a “Light,” reminiscent of phrases in the first reading: “Your light has come... Nations shall walk by your light.”

Another aspect of insight is that it is usually a satisfying experience, and not just intellectually. It is a release of tension, when something finally makes sense. It is not just “Aha!” but also “Aah!” This experience is described when we are told that the Magi were “overjoyed,” and when the prophet says to Israel, “You shall be radiant at what you see.”

St. Paul expresses his insight about the gentiles. This is not insight in the usual sense, however. St. Paul didn’t figure it out for himself. He received a “revelation” to the effect that the light was no longer restricted to the people of Israel. Here we have not just “Aha!,” not just “Aah!” but also and especially “Wow!” It was unexpected, hidden till now. Who could have imagined it?

Some biblical scholars claim the event describe in today’s Gospel never happened, since there is no evidence for it outside this passage. Let’s suppose for a moment that this is a story that was circulating at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written. Notice, I don’t say “just” a story. Stories, after all, can communicate deep truths. In this case, various symbolic elements tell us much about who Jesus is and why he came. “Wow!” It is “Gospel truth,” the truth the Evangelist was inspired to communicate. A purely academic, historical approach to the story cannot bring us to bring us to that level of insight.

There are various kinds of epiphanies in life, when whole new horizons open up before us. I still vividly remember the first time I discovered how beautiful opera is. over 50 years ago. There was no intellectual insight, no release of tension, just the wonderful surprise, the “Wow!”

The arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem was a great surprise. We are told Herod was “troubled.” His reaction was neither “Aha!” nor “Aah,” much less “Wow!” but “Uh-oh!” and he set about trying to protect his own position.

Our position is described by St. Paul as “Coheirs.” This word shows up in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, where we pray “that we may merit to be co-heirs (with the saints) to eternal life, and may praise and glorify you.”

When you think about this in the light of the whole Gospel, it makes sense (“Aha!”), it’s a comfort (“Aah!”) and it’s wonderful (“Wow!”).

Sometimes it’s more one than the other; take your pick. The “mystery” St. Paul speaks of remains beyond our capacity to understand fully, or appreciate entirely, or admire sufficiently. We can always come back for more.

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