The glory of the Lord is rising on you. That is what we have just heard from the prophet Isaiah. Can it mean us? We doubt that we could receive such a great honour. Yet I think of the vast multitudes of people across the earth who deep down are all the same. People who love their families. People who struggle to make a living or shape a career. People who yearn for education, for dignity, for freedom. People who hope and dream and pray. Because to be human is also to wonder sometimes whether there is ‘more’ to life. I think too of the older people, who are quietly aware that the curtain of death draws nearer and who wonder what lies beyond that curtain. All of us in different ways are seekers. On us, God’s glory shines.
Epiphany is that moment when suddenly the present world looks different. Outwardly, the world seems unchanged. Two people can look at it and not see the same picture. To some, it is the familiar world of striving and getting and spending and worrying. To others it is the world as before but with the world-changing addition of the presence of God. God shines through the present moment, with the quiet reassurance that we are known and loved. For those who have eyes to see, the world is a place of epiphany.
What makes the difference? Why do some see and others not? Many wonder about this, especially perhaps parents of grown children who wonder why the faith has not taken root in their adult sons or daughter. There is no easy answer. In part it is the radical nature of human freedom – we are free to believe or not. In part it is certainly the cynical nature of the culture surrounding us, which mocks faith even as it secretly longs for its security.
But the wise men’s pilgrimage gives us food for thought. First, it is the story of a search. Not just about searching for truth as an individual, but as part of a community – it is significant, surely that there were three of them, and we may assume that they were in conversation with others around them. There was a culture of discussion, of mutual insights, of yearning for revelation. They arrived at a moment of insight because they had been prepared to ask the big questions.
Our culture is too reluctant to ask the big questions – Who am I? Is there a purpose to life? Where can I find inner strength and peace? It is also a culture that is strangely reluctant to be part of a community of faith. If you doubt that consider the phenomenon of the internet hacker, the lonely nerd attacking his laptop, convinced that he can find the truth on his own.
Second, we read twice in the gospel today that the wise men had come to do homage to the infant Christ. Homage. What a quaint word it might seem. It implies giving respect, giving honour, promising loyalty. The image associated with it is bending the knee. I think it deeply significant that priest and people do exactly this each time they genuflect to the Eucharistic presence of the Lord. We acknowledge that which is infinitely greater than ourselves. We see the hidden presence of God. Our culture finds this moment not only difficult but puzzling. Difficult, because it is a culture of independent individualism. Puzzling, because they see nothing different.
Perhaps we all need to remember what the letter of the Ephesians says today, namely that we are taken into the mystery of God. We know the truth, we are given to understand, the revelation is made to us – yet there will always remain more to be known, more to be understood, more to be revealed. Because this mystery is a truth that we enter into by living it. As we do so, we bow before the awesome God who will always be infinitely greater than ourselves – yet who reaches out to us in love, and draws us into his life as he comes to us in Christ.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest at St Mary's in Finchley East, north London. Fr Terry's latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing, available on Amazon.