Saturday, January 9, 2010

Feast of the Epiphany

This Wednesday, Jan 6, marked a major feast day for Christians: the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany means 'manifestation" or 'appearance': it was on this day that Christ, the Desire of Nations, became manifest to the world. It was on this day that the Magi came, Zoroastrian priests from Persia who had been ruminating for centuries on their own religion's messianic prophecies, who were drawn to the West to adore the infant Jesus. And yes, on this day it was made manifest that he was not just a Very Special Person, but the Divine Son of God. This is the meaning of the second gift of the Magi, the frankincence. In our modern world we have forgotten what frankincense signified: but the Jews knew, and so did the Persians, and certainly Matthew's audience knew. Frankincense was a type of incense used in worship, used as an offering to the Lord Most High: in offering it to Jesus, the Magi showed that they recognized him as divine.

I don't have all that much to say about Epiphany, as I kind of expressed the best of my thoughts on this occasion last year. I will say this: it's one of my favourite feasts of the church year. It tells us that God doesn't work through one faith alone: He spoke to the Persians as he spoke to the Jews. The Zoroastrians of Persia had a great deal of mutual exchange of ideas and influence with Judaism, during the centuries that the Jews were under Persian rule: even the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, was the old lingua franca of the Persian Empire. Christianity owes its concepts of heaven, hell, the devil, angelology, and the Last Judgment largely to Persian influence- these ideas weren't common, or much emphasized, in Judaism prior to the Exile. And if we accept this, which we must, then we must also accept that in some way, the Persians too had experiences of God, just as did the Jews.

Zoroastrianism, beginning with Zoroaster himself, had predicted the coming of a saviour who would establish a reign of peace, justice and love on earth, and who would vanquish the forces of evil. They even believed that the Saviour, when he came, would be virgin born. It's not known for sure to what extent these ideas developed in the pre-Christian era, as opposed to the middle ages, but it seems probable to me that they were ideas of old lineage, that existed prior to the coming of Christ. For God had spoken to the Persians, and in some way they knew what to expect, and it was in thinking over these prophecies that the Magi became convinced that the king who was to be born in Judaea was the Saviour whom their prophet had foretold.

Imagine the kind of faith and humility it must have taken for the Magi to leave Persia behind and journey west. They had no guarantee that they would find what they sought. Indeed, this was a particularly unpromising time to expect a King of the Jews to be born, a mere single generation after the last heir of the Maccabees had been murdered in his bath and Judaea had passed for good into Roman hands. At around the same time as the Maccabees had won freedom for the Jews, Persian had established independence from the same hated Seleucids, and at the time of the Magi's visit has established itself as a bitter rival of Rome. To journey to Judaea was to journey into enemy-held territory: and more, it was to journey to the land of a subject people, who had once been ruled by the Persians and had been a small and insignificant segment of the Persian empire. How much humility must have been necessary for these three wise men- the scientists, the intellectuals, the theologians of one of the world's great empires- to venture west to the land of a small, former subject nation, and kneel before a child on a bed of straw, next to a donkey's stable, and offer the gift that was an unmistakable confession of divinity?

The Magi were men who had attained the good things that the world had to offer: wisdom, knowledge, favour, respect. And we are led to believe that unlike so many people of the time- unlike Herod, unlike Pilate- they had won them through virtue and service to the truth. They had little in their lives of which to be ashamed: these were not prostitutes or tax collectors driven by guilt to throw themselves at Christ's feet and ask for forgiveness. Yet in their own way, they did so nonetheless: they knew that for all their wisdom, and knowledge, and for all the collective religious experience and spiritual wisdom that their culture had attained through the grace of God, there was still something missing. In their own lives, and in the religious life of their nation. As there was with everyone. Persia, along with the Jews, represented probably the closest that any nation had come to understanding the nature of God, prior to the Incarnation. It still wasn't enough. Because without the Incarnation, nothing could ever be enough. Not man's wisdom, virtue and striving at their highest: not God's own revelations of himself at their most intense. Even the best of Man, and even the most vivid and comprehensive visions of God, still left a gap that seemed unbridgeable. It could be, and was, bridged only by the Incarnation: when "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

"We are come to worship him" said the Magi (Matthew 2:2). The words are unambiguous: the Latin uses "adorare", to adore. The Persians, though they believed in two coequal gods (one good, and one evil) recognized only one worthy of worship, the perfectly good God, Ahura Mazda. The didn't worship the angels, or holy men: they worshiped God alone, under his name Ahura Mazda, and when they adored Jesus with the incense of divinity, they recognized him as Ahura Mazda made manifest in the boy in the cradle: the Word made flesh. They weren't afraid of confessing what seemed like blasphemy to Jews and Romans and no doubt to orthodox Persians as well. As they were great in humility, and great in faith to perceive in this unassuming child the confirmation of their dreams and revelations, they were also great in courage. They must, too, have been great in fortitude to endure that voyage across the desert- the lands between Judaea and Persia are not, and were not then, pleasant lands to travel across.

The story tells us that when the Magi saw the infant Jesus with his mother the Ever Virgin Mary, they "rejoiced with great joy" (Matthew 2:10). We tend to think of religious experience as something solemn and somber, and in truth it is, but it can also be an experience of tremendous joy. For Theresa of Avila, the vision of the Angel was like being pierced with a flaming sword (and from early on, people have read between the lines to interpret her vision as having its erotic component). If erotic love is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, and between the Holy Spirit and Our Lady, then surely erotic pleasure is a mirror of the pleasure we will get when we open ourselves to God with a pure and willing heart: and indeed, erotic pleasure may be one of the few things we can analogize it to. The joy that the Magi felt when they saw the final end of their quest- and in truth, the final end of their lives, and the final end of all human existence- was surely something like the joy that John Donne felt when he said, "Unless you enthral me, I never shall be free, Nor ever chaste except thou ravish me."

We are told, further, that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to KIng Herod. God did not give them a single vision and let them do what they would with it: on the contrary, he continued guiding them. They had opened their souls, their bodies, their lives, to His will and His guidance, and as it is said, "To whoever asks, it shall be given: to whoever knocks, it shall be opened." Once they had given themselves over to the love of Christ as he lay as a child in the stable, they would never and could never be the same again. Not that they were entirely different people. St. Matthew tells us that they returned to their country "by a different way." They didn't stay and become Jews, or Romans, and they didn't die, like Simeon, confident in the knowledge they had achieved all they had hoped to achieve in life. On the contrary, they went back to Persia, and presumably returned to their lives of service, virtue, and the pursuit of truth.

But again, "by a different way." No longer were they the same people, who had sought for truth without sure knowledge of where it might be attained. For now they knew the truth, for as Christ says, "I am the truth." They were, in fact, the first Christians, if we take that in a broad sense, for they were the first people to have worshiped Christ as Divine. No doubt they continued to be good Persians and good Zoroastrians, and probably good intellectuals as well: but now they knew, which they hadn't before, in what and in Whom lay the final fulfilment of Zoroastrianism, as well as the final fulfilment of all that is good, true, and beautiful in human life. For all good things have their ultimate origin, and final end, in Christ.

These were quite likely already men well into the prime of life: but as with St. John, God blessed them with long life. Every day that we live is a blessing, one more day that we have been spared from death, and the Magi were in this regard blessed many times over. Tradition tells us that they lived to watch, from afar, as Christ fled to Egypt and returned; as he grew in wisdom and was tempted; as he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and preached; as he was given over to death, and as he rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven. They were alive, we are told, when St. Thomas came to Persia after the Ascension, and set up the first Christian church there. And in the same way as they had lived long enough to see the prophecies of Zoroaster fulfilled in the Incarnation, they lived long enough to see Christ's mission on earth completed, and they joined the task of building His church on earth. When I die, I hope to have led as complete and full a life, as did the Magi, and to be able to look back on a life in which, like the Magi, the deepest longings of my heart have been fulfilled.

Lord Christ, at the Epiphany you made yourself manifest to the Magi, and revealed yourself in glory and honour: have mercy on us who are veiled in the illusions and shadows of the world, and reveal yourself to those people of all faiths, or of none, who are searching with sincere hearts for the truth. Amen.

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