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It is still Christmas, so keep your manger scene out. But this Epiphany Sunday listen to the Gospel and you will find that the the creche scenes and other images we have of the shepherds and wise men kneeling together at the manger are not accurate, usually.
They aren’t accurate because the shepherds and the magi never visited the Holy Family at the same time.
On Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Gospel describes the shepherds’ encounter: “The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.”
Then on the feast of Epiphany, the Gospel describes the way the magi see Jesus: “On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.”
We are told in both cases that Mary ponders these things in her heart. What did she ponder? The larger significance would be clear to her: This baby that came to her so mysteriously is the center of the world.
This is shown by several elements of the story. The presence of angels and the star show that there is a singular cosmic reaction to the arrival of this child, while the presence of the mighty and the humble show that there is a worldwide reaction.
There were no giant crowds at the Nativity, but there were representatives from the full spectrum of animate existence. Creatures ranging from animals to angels are there and human society ranging from the local riff raff to foreign intellectuals responded. They were all converging not on a mighty player on the world stage, but on a silent infant in a feeding trough.
That an infant from an unknown family is the center of the world is a very strange thing indeed. It only makes sense if he is divine.
He is not interesting for what he has to say, but for who he is. He is God: That is what makes Mary the “Mother of God” we celebrate Jan. 1 and that is what made the three kings seek him out on Epiphany Sunday. It is also the reason Herod seeks him out to destroy him.
Jesus’ divinity is why his birth — not even his words, or his works — already changed the world. It is also why his birth calls us not just to rejoice but to be on guard to defend his presence in our midst.
The Vatican ― through the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments’ “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy” ― offers these tips for getting the most out of Epiphany.
1. The Proclamation at Mass. “The solemn proclamation of Easter and the principal dominical feasts.” Many priests ― including the Benedictine monks here in Atchison ― have revived this practice. Do a video search of “Epiphany proclamation” to find examples.
2. Exchange of Epiphany gifts. The Vatican includes a beautiful recommendation about gifts in general: “ensure that the exchange of gifts on the solemnity of the Epiphany retain a Christian …. free from extravagance, luxury, and waste, all of which are extraneous to the Christian origins of this practice.”
3. Epiphany House Blessing. In this house blessing, says the Vatican, “On the lentils are inscribed the Cross of salvation, together with the indication of the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), which can also be interpreted to mean Christus mansionem benedicat [May Christ Bless this Home], written in blessed chalk.” To find aids for this brief ceremony search online for: Epiphany house blessing.
4. Help refugees. In the spirit of the Holy Family who welcomed the magi, the Vatican recommends openness to refugees and immigrants through “initiatives in solidarity with those who come from afar, whether Christian or not.” The U.S. bishops have a page devoted to how to help Syrian Refugees: Find it here.