SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY
William Safire once remarked, “Never assume the obvious is true.” The Magi learned that lesson after an audience with King Herod that left them enlightened but also very uneasy.
We can understand why they simply took it for granted that Jerusalem would be the place where they would find the newborn king of the Jews. Not merely the guiding star but everything that they knew about Judaism pointed them toward Jerusalem, the Davidic capital, the site of God’s Temple. Isaiah the prophet, among others, declared that it would be visited by the gentiles as evidence of their submission to the God of Israel.
Yet when they arrive in Jerusalem the child is not to be found. Isaiah’s vision of exotic visitors bringing gifts is true, but its deepest meaning is disclosed by a later, minor prophet, Malachi, who directs the Magi further along to the obscure, all-but-forgotten village of David’s humble origins.
So it is not great Jerusalem – Jerusalem the subject of the psalmist’s hymns, renown Jerusalem, wealthy, regal Jerusalem, but ordinary, prosaic every-town Bethlehem where the Savior is born. There it is that God’s secret plan hidden for long ages is finally revealed to a band of itinerant Chaldean sages. Evidently God has a fondness for the ordinary, the humble, the small, the unlikely. Is it any wonder that this child, whose adoring visitors must have wondered if they had brought the proper gifts for a Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem epiphany, grew up to tell stories about ordinary people with surprise endings? Or that he spent his few precious public years with fishermen and farmers and tax collectors?
What most people esteem as being of great importance evidently means little in the eyes of God. Hasn’t Pope Francis been proclaiming that by word and gesture since the day of his election? Herod panicked over the Magi’s news because he feared a rival to his throne, but his concerns really had little part to play in the grand designs of God that St. Paul writes about to the Ephesians.
It is good for us to know that because we can fix our hearts on Jerusalem and wind up in Bethlehem. Yet it is in Bethlehem that God enters our lives. We have our dreams, our plans, our priorities – they don’t always play out as we thought. Even on a large scale the walls of Jerusalem – symbolic Jerusalem – display placards recording the shattered dreams and failed visions of revolutions, utopian schemes, five-year plans, new frontiers, leagues of nations. They all have to do with power, money, influence: the things that count in this world. But perhaps in God’s eyes something else is important – something echoed in the Beatitudes: a kingdom of a different order. Certainly the rich and the famous, the movers and shakers will fade away like Herod; but the child endures.
Then, too, this feast suggest that WE count, because it is the gracious purpose of God to bypass Jerusalem in favor of Bethlehem, to look on the lowliness of Mary and the simple goodness of Joseph, to bless the efforts of naive Magi trying to find their way through a confusing world in which treachery can exploit even the best of intentions. God reveals his Son in a forgotten village to simple people. And so, too, to us in our ordinariness, our sincerity, our groping efforts to find our way to him, he reveals himself in the midst of our Bethlehem lives.