The hubbub surrounding Christmas has died only to be resurrected by the Lunar New Year’s decoration probably up already in the shopping complexes. Epiphany marks the last Sunday in Christmas season before we ease into Ordinary Time which is initiated by the Baptism of the Lord. The word is defined as to show or to manifest. Hence, Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of the Christ to the Gentile world as symbolised by the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the baby Jesus. But, this manifestation is also a “Theophany” because the 2nd Person of the Trinity, who through the decisive act of the Incarnation, is now manifested in person to His creation. Epiphany is significant because of the far-reaching consequences of this appearance.
As we consider the consequences of how far-reaching it is, 3 groups of characters stand out in the aftermath of Christ’s birth. Firstly, the Shepherds are indeed honoured and privileged for they received what is considered to be a direct and supernatural revelation via the agency of the angels. I believe none of us shares that kind of honour.1 Secondly, the High Priests and the Jewish scribes in today’s Gospel are privileged as well because they have the certainty of sacred scripture. Salvation does come through the Jews. Finally, the Gentile Magi discover the birth of the Saviour through the observation of a natural phenomenon—the shining star that guides them. This group symbolises a world seeking to her know her Creator and Lord; a longing that is mirrored in the first reading. We and 99.99% of mankind belong to this group.
In this sense, Christianity as a religion of the Epiphany challenges our understanding of how Christians should conduct themselves in a world hungering to know her Christ. If the world searches for Jesus Christ, then surprisingly He is still a “nobody” especially after 2000 years of Christianity. Perhaps Christianity and certainly Christians are to be blamed. But, today is not the day to assign blame much less to look for causes of Christianity’s failure. However, between the Jewish Scribes and the Gentile Magi, note the irony of how Christ is discovered. The certainty of scripture is no guarantee that Christ will be recognised—a timely reminder to Christians that the possession of Gospel Truth is no added advantage. If we dissociate ourselves from the Jews, not because we are superior to them but because we accept the revelation, like the Shepherds, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, thus what lies before us is to rethink how Christ is to be discovered by a world still waiting to know Him. Christians must engage the world in order that Christ does not remain a local, parochial or provincial message but should instead become the universal answer to the question of humanity. How?
In communicating Him to the world, we marvel at how social media has greatly expanded our range and ease of communication. However, we may fail to observe that it has also artificially inflated our personal space which at the same constricts the efficacy of our communication. Much of what we accept to be “communication” is basically personal and not really genuinely social or truly interpersonal. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter enable us to reach a wider audience and yet their darker sides enable people with no qualms to expose the very private details of their lives for all and sundry to see or read. And in terms of public life, exposure of the scandalous sex lives of political personages is an integral part of political prowess.2 So, what we consider to be “social” is pretty much an exposure of what may be the private life of individuals. When the content of our communication falls short of the intent then communication will be reduced to “shouting out”.
This is the meaning of shouting out. Our social space seems to be hemmed in by the almost impermeable boundaries of personal spaces. And when we move, it becomes a matter of how large we want to project that personal space. Many of our blogs or Facebook postings are good examples of trying to enlarge our personal spaces—they are the cyber-equivalence of our 15-minute claim to fame.
I was in Hongkong recently and witnessed this incident. There was a wedding the previous night and the morning after was the goodbye rigmarole. The farewell party’s vehicle was parked inconsiderately so much so that the taxis just backed up into a snaking queue. Immediately behind this offending vehicle was man in a taxi trying to get to the airport. But, the wedding entourage saw no problem inconveniencing everyone around. A shouting match ensued between the man in a hurry and the morning after bride. She shouted expletives to the effect: “I really don’t care if you were inconvenienced by my inconsideration”. What do we think? We think it is bad manners or some call it apathy but really, that was symptomatic of how our social sphere has crumbled into a coliseum choked by competing personal spaces. It is about how loud you can shout or how powerful you are to impose your will. I am sure everyone here has this type of experience to recount.3
The primary aim of communication is not just an exchange of information but is directed towards the discovery of truth and also the embrace by truth. We do not possess truth as much as we are possessed by truth.4 But, within a life-world of bloated personal spaces, truth is no longer relevant whereas “like” is. “Like” has become the measure of what “true” is. In such a space, how can we proclaim Him who is Truth and who might also be unlikable?
In such a climate, the public display of religiosity—which is a form of communication; an expression of truth—could be considered offensive and therefore rejected or if not, irrelevantly quaint and therefore merely tolerated.5 Given this conundrum, do you think it is possible to propose a vision which is all encompassing? We have allowed religion to be a private matter for too long. And the other major religion which has a vision as grand or as overarching as Christianity is one which preaches peace but frequently espouses violence as a means of achieving its end—that is, it has no qualms using violence to impose its monolithic view of man vis-à-vis God. In reaction to the fear of violence, it is any wonder why secularity, especially Western secularity, is hard-pressed to contain Christianity, a religion which proposes a vision not founded on violence but embraced by truth.6
Religion is not a private matter. This statement does not mean that the opposite is true, meaning that religion has to be imposed publicly.7 Instead religion is to be expressed, not just privately through prayers or petitions but expressed publicly through worship and liturgy. A personal relationship with the Lord, as demanded by fundamentalist Christians, is important but so too is public worship. Hence, the liturgy, the Mass,—by its definition, is par excellence a public expression not just of our relationship with Christ but also of the Truth that God is with us. The more we gather for the Eucharist, the fuller our expression as the Body of Christ becomes and the more we dare to worship publicly, the more we prevent religion from retreating behind the limiting walls of private belief. The very Eucharist you are at, boring as some people might characterise it or impersonal as some would deem it, is actually the bulwark against belief becoming merely an expression of personal preference—something that you might like or just enjoy.
In conclusion, the Epiphany as a manifestation is not just a random act of God’s capricious revelation but it also reveals us to us; it reveals who we are as human beings. Firstly, that God can “speak” to us and He has, and most resolutely through His Son, Jesus Christ. And in speaking, Epiphany proposes Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life to all humanity; and not just to a section. Therefore, He is not just any way, one truth amongst many truths or merely a life. Epiphany reveals the true meaning of the Incarnation that by becoming one of us, He has enabled us to break through the limitation of our private individualistic bubbles—in short, by His coming as Man, we have become truly brothers and sisters—and at the Eucharist, that brotherhood is best expressed. Secondly, not only does God speak but also we are looking for Him. So, when our pathetic little world has reduced the transcendental aim of man’s existence to almost nothing, the Magi stand as a reminder, that as long as humanity exists, it seeks wisdom—it seeks the answers to the questions of existence. Thus, Christ is not a “nobody” and neither is He just somebody to like. Instead, He is the reason for the proclamation of the Holy Gospel to all nations waiting for the honour of His grace. And guess who the messengers are? You are.1 If a person walks up to say, “Mother Mary appeared to me”, chances are he or she is singing the loony tunes. It explains why the Church takes such a long time to ascertain or approve all apparitions.
2 If you want to enter into the political ring, it is good to know the bedroom antics or secrets of your opponent.
3 Children running and screaming in a restaurant with parents oblivious of the children treating what is a public place as their personal playground. The same can be said of going out to eat supper in one’s pyjamas.
4 The Magi can be said to have been possessed by truth enough to risk everything even to the extent of leaving all forms of security in search of the child Jesus.
5 Our Corpus Christi procession is a form of public declaration of our belief. The whole process of having to apply for permit is explained by the need to maintain public order. However, what is perhaps more true is that the so-called “maintenance of public order” serves to illustrate how small the social space has become for the public expression of faith. We are tolerated for our quaint practices. The worship of God is extraneous to our everyday existence.
6 A distinction has to be made between religion in itself and the perpetrators of violence. Religions are not always violent but the people who are fanatical about their religion frequently are.
7 Like checking if you abstain from meat on Friday or arresting you for eating publicly in broad day-light during the fasting month.