If someone were to collect the various speeches, homilies, plane interviews, and off-the-cuff comments of Pope Francis and seek to identity common themes, I suspect that of the many possible topics, three that would especially stand out are: the tenderness of God, the journey aspect of faith, and the surprises that come with following Jesus Christ. These three points are definitely apropos for this Epiphany Sunday.
Certainly, Pope Francis isn’t the only pontiff to speak of these themes. Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI addressed them. They are found throughout the Christian tradition and within the Sacred Scriptures themselves. Of course, Pope Francis has given them his own emphases and his own unique twist.
In searching the biblical account of salvation history, we can identify a series of events and occurrences where tenderness, journey, and surprise are a part of the narrative. And yet, the event of the Epiphany shines above all the others in terms of endearment and affection.
The story of the Magi is one that touches the Western mind and heart. It’s part of the romanticism which surrounds the events of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The story of three magi coming to the manger along with the shepherds is in the imagination of many, so much so that the biblical details of such a visitation are often missed.
For example, we don’t know how many Magi actually visited. The Bible doesn’t specify a number. By the time the Magi arrived, we suspect that the Christ Child was around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred. We also know that when the Magi did appear, the Holy Family had a “house.” They had moved beyond the manger into a stable place of residence. And yet, for all the biblical details, the popular story is still worth knowing and cherishing. From it, we see our three themes:
The tenderness of God
The word epiphany is Greek for “manifestation.” As such, the obvious question becomes: What exactly is being manifested? The most precise answer is the Christ – the Anointed One of God – and the promises of the living God – originally made to his people Israel – but now open to all peoples. By application, this God who seeks to save his children from sin and darkness, also manifests his tenderness. Unlike the mythical gods who seek to hurt or harm humanity, or who use the human family as toys, the living God reveals a depth of merciful love and kindness that was unknown to the Gentile nations.
God accomplishes this manifestation to all people through a simple star and through foreigners. He goes to the corners of the world and beckons all men and women, of every race and tongue, to himself, to his own compassionate heart and virtuous way of life. As the Lord Jesus would later preach in his public ministry, so his manifestation declares: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Faith as a Journey
The Magi were willing to travel and go beyond their comfort zone. We can only imagine what they must have faced in their two-year journey, and yet they were tenacious. They didn’t give up. They saw everything as a lesson and as a part of their search for the Newborn King.
In this way, the Magi model the journey of faith for us. The life that seeks to live by faith will see, suffer, and experience many things, but the sorrows can be just as beneficial as the joys, if we hold on to our faith. In this way, every part of the journey – good or bad – becomes one piece of a beautiful mosaic blessed by God.
The Surprises of Discipleship
The Magi must have been besides themselves and elated with joy when they found the Newborn King with his mother in an ordinary house. The wonders they must have contemplated. The mystery, the surprise, and the question: What marvels will the living God accomplish by so great a King covered in so simple a way of life? The Scriptures tell us that the Magi went home by a separate way. This isn’t mere geography. The surprises of God changed them and made them different people.
In our own discipleship, as we travel by faith, we will also be caught off guard by the surprises of God. We too will be filled with wonder and questions. And, we too, will be led and invited to follow a different path.
These are the strong lessons of Pope Francis and of our tradition. They find a harmonious expression in the Epiphany event. And so, as we celebrate this manifestation of God to the nations of the world, will we feel the tenderness of God, journey by faith, and will we celebrate the overflowing surprises of the living God? The choice is ours.