We call this feast,
on which we recall the visit of the Magi to the Christ child,
“Epiphany,” from the Greek word epipháneia,
which means an appearance or manifestation.
We also use the word “epiphany”
in a more secular sense,
one popularized by the novelist James Joyce,
to refer to flashes of profound realization
that seem to strike us from out of the blue.
Today it seems to be used for any insight,
some of them less-than-profound:
in a recent news story from Los Angeles,
a teacher at an elementary school
that had provided iPads for all its students
described the effect on learning as “an ephiphany.”
“Epiphany” is even the name for an integrated suite
of Customer Relations Management software.
Presumably using this software
will give one striking new insights
into how to manage one’s customer relations.
But the epiphany that we celebrate today
is something more than an idea
that suddenly occurs to the Wise Men.
What the Magi find in Bethlehem is not an idea,
but a person: Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict has written: “Being a Christian
is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon
and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est no. 1).
What the Pope is warning against here
is the temptation, on the one hand,
to reduce being a Christian
to a set of ideas that we hold
about God and the world –
making it something like
a philosophical system –
or, on the other hand,
to transform it
into a set of ethical positions –
whether this be a commitment to peace and justice
or to so-called “traditional values.”
Pope Benedict does not deny
that Christianity commits us
both to certain truth claims
about God and the world
and to certain ethical positions,
but the heart of Christianity is found
neither in our ideas nor our ethics
but in our encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
The Epiphany of the Wise Men
was not their being struck by a startling new notion,
nor their adoption of a new set of moral values,
but the transforming experience
of meeting God in Jesus Christ.
Their epiphany is their encounter
with the God who has entered our world
as a human child,
as love that makes itself weak and vulnerable
so as to become one with us in all things but sin.
As a result of this encounter
they no doubt found themselves
thinking about God and the world in new ways.
After all, if you go searching for a king
and find yourself kneeling before a baby
in a humble dwelling in a small town,
it is bound to overturn
much of what you thought you knew
about God and the world.
And based on this new understanding
you very well might find yourself
with a very different set of values
and a very different approach to living them out.
As Pope Benedict says, this encounter
“gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
In the wake of this encounter,
Jesus Christ becomes for the Magi
the new star whom they will follow
on their journey of return
to their true homeland in God’s kingdom.
And this is true for us too.
Our protestant brothers and sisters often speak
of having “a personal relationship with Christ.”
I used to react negatively to this phrase
because I thought it referred to having
a private relationship with God
that took no account of other people.
This would run completely counter
to our Catholic tradition
of the importance of the Church community
in our life as Christians.
But now I see that
speaking of a “personal relationship” with Jesus
is less about having your own personal Jesus
and more about having a relationship with Jesus
as a person who is even now living and active.
Perhaps this is something we Catholics need to learn
from our protestant brothers and sisters.
Pope Benedict himself reminds us
that Jesus is not someone
who lived an long, long time ago
and left behind some interesting ideas
and ethical injunctions.
Jesus is the risen Lord whom we can encounter
in a way that is just as direct and just as personal
as the encounter of the Magi with the Christ child.
We encounter him in the words of Scripture,
in the sacraments,
in the poor and the suffering,
and in each other.
The epiphany of God as love
is not something that happened long ago;
it is something that is happening here and now.
Just as with the Magi,
Jesus shows himself to us
so that he might become
both the star that we follow
and the companion who walks beside us,on our journey to God’s kingdom.