Homily for January 5, 2014: Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

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For those who may be keeping track, this marks the 12th day of Christmas – so there is still time to go out and get those 12 drummers drumming.

This is Epiphany Sunday, and the star of the gospel is – literally – the star. It is the original GPS device, guiding the magi from the east toward Christ.

One of my favorite Christmas symbols here in New York is that massive “snowflake” star that hangs over 57th Street, sponsored every year by UNICEF. Nothing symbolizes the hope and serenity of this season more beautifully.

Of course, it may be significant that if you follow that star today, it doesn’t lead to a stable and a baby. It takes you Trump Tower and Tiffany’s.

But nonetheless: that image beaming over New York City during this time of year captures the imagination. It reminds us of the reason for the season. The very word Epiphany means “manifestation.” I looked in Webster’s this morning and it elaborates: “an intuitive grasp of reality through something simple and striking.”

Something as simple as a child. Something as striking as a star.

History is silent about just who or what the magi in the gospels really were. In some translations, they are astrologers, in others they are kings or “wise men.” And, in fact, we don’t know exactly how many of them there were. But because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – tradition has held that there were three of them.

It’s a meaningful number. Three is the number of the trinity. It is the number of days Christ spent in the tomb.

But it also signifies something even more meaningful and – for us this morning, much more important.

They are not solitary. They are a group.  They are a community.

Again and again, when Christ revealed himself the world, he rarely showed himself to just one person at a time.

Think of Christmas night, when the news was announced to shepherds – another group, another kind of community.

And then, with the three magi, the incarnation was announced to this distinct “community” of people.

This will happen repeatedly. It’s the beginning of a pattern.  At Jesus’s baptism, there will be a crowd of witnesses. When he preaches, he will speak to multitudes. When he performs his first miracle, it will be at a public gathering, a wedding. When he reappears after his resurrection, it will be to a roomful of believers. Even on the road to Emmaus, he presents himself not to one person, but to two.

That is part of the great message of Christianity. We are meant to receive the good news together…to live it together…to celebrate it and share it with one another.

The simple fact remains: Christianity is not a solitary experience.

Thomas Merton put it beautifully: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone. We find it with another.”

The other important thing to remember about the magi, of course, is that they didn’t come empty handed.

The gospel tells us “They opened their treasures.”

Like the magi, each of us has a treasure to offer Christ—and to offer the world.

The prayerful question we should ask ourselves this Sunday is: what is it? What do we have to give?

Sometimes the best present…is the gift of being present.

Some of you may remember the story of eight-year-old Delaney Brown, of Reading, Pennsylvania.   Delaney was diagnosed with leukemia in May and was given only a few months to live. She underwent five rounds of radiation and therapy. Nothing worked. As the end of her life approached, she told her parents that one wish she had was to hear, once again, Christmas carols.  Word spread on the internet and social media.  A few days before Christmas, people started to gather outside the family home – first a few, then more, and dozens became hundreds, and hundreds became thousands.  Eventually an estimated 10,000 friends, neighbors and strangers, were there, standing in the cold, to sing Christmas carols outside the house of a little girl most of them had never met. People who were there later said it was one of the most inspiring outpourings they’d ever seen. Delaney was drifting in and out of sleep. But her parents said she heard the carols. They posted a picture on Facebook of the little girl, eyes closed, giving a thumbs-up.

Just a few days later, on Christmas morning, Delaney died.

Thinking back on it, I don’t know who was given the greater gift that night – Delaney, or the people gathered on the street.  In the commercial crush of the season, the story of Delaney Brown reminded the world: treasure isn’t just gold or frankincense or myrrh. Compassion is a treasure.  So is time.  So is solidarity with those who are suffering.

And so is prayer. At times, it is the most precious treasure of all.

No matter who we are, or where we come from, or what we do: each of us has a treasure to offer. The magi were just the first. They aren’t the last.

As we celebrate today Christ manifesting himself to the world, think of what that manifestation has meant to each of us—to this particular community of believers. And let’s ask ourselves what we can give in return – to God, and to one another. What are our treasures? What do we have to give?

Epiphany signals to us that Christmas season is drawing to a close.

But that doesn’t mean the season of giving is coming to an end.

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