Photo is from The Traveling Ecumenist—I recommend reading the entire essay “Merton’s Vision: Transfiguration, Transformation and Transcendence” which discusses the burden and difficulty of his particular mystical vision, which the homily only hints at. Towards the end of the essay, the author reminds us that, “The goal of reconciliation is not to erode or erase all distinctiveness to create a homogenous end product. Rather, it is about not letting a boundary be an obstruction to seeing that it is the very distinctiveness of the other which reflects a truth back to us about ourselves.” That is the goal. Epiphany seems to me to be where we start.
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded text. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth.”
We all know this story, right? These wise men, astrologers, philosophers—maybe magicians—from far away…see a sign in the heavens…a star…maybe it’s a new star…maybe they just interpret stars differently….whatever it is…they come…they go see the secular king…he sends them to Bethlehem with some dodgy instructions…they find Mary and the child…they pay homage…they offer gifts…and they disappear…and Christ is made manifest.
To be manifest is to reveal something clearly to the eye or understanding. (source)
To be manifest is to be: “evident,” “palpable,” “proved by direct evidence.” It probably comes from an older meaning of “caught by the hand,” physically grasped.
So there is a star…which is a physical object…but hard to grasp…and hard to read…and unless you’re trained in navigating by them, so a star is a kind of manifestation, but really it’s more like a sign post…a finger pointing at the real manifestation.
There’s the testimony of the chief priests and scribes…After the Magi show up, Herod calls them and says, “what’s going on?” And they give him this prophesy from Micah, which names Bethlehem…but…prophesies are slippery things…even harder to read than stars…so that’s a kind of evidence but not really the manifestation.
Of course, there’s Mary and the child…That would seem to be very clear evidence…unless you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian you know the comedic flip side of this. They go to the wrong house. Stars and prophesies are tricky…how do they know THIS is the place? What clear, palpable, direct evidence is there that this is THE child?
This whole season following the Epiphany is full of stories of Christ being made manifest…full of signs, full of evidence that THIS is THE ONE…the heavens open at his baptism and a voice proclaims “You are my Son, the Beloved.” But some people think that’s just thunder.
Water changes to wine…which again confuses people…
Jesus is teaching in the temple and reads that famous passage from Isaiah…”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…the oppressed go free.” Then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” [mic drop]. And again people will be confused and really annoyed by this.
There’s a miraculous catch of fish…some healings…all of this evidence…of the manifestation…of Christ…God being incarnate…being fully with us in the world…
Sure…(you might be thinking) all those things happened way back then…(maybe?)…what about now? What proof is there now? What evidence is there now…If I could see a star, or a miracle…If God would just cough…
We place an awful lot of stock in external evidence. Which is good and right, and it’s created an awful lot of very good things…like science…and understandings of how things like stars, and planets, vaccines, and medicine work…
External, factual, evidence is vital—(although we’ve learned that it can be manipulated, and we can be manipulated by it)… I wonder if our focus on external evidence hasn’t caused us to lose some of our ability to pay attention to the evidence that comes from within. Because I think the answer to how the Magi know they’re at the right place, has less to do with external evidence…and much more with internal evidence…
What’s the difference between Herod and the Magi? When Herod hears of Jesus’ birth his first reaction is…? Fear (he’s frightened)…the word is really something more like anxious…vexed…rattled…
When the Magi see where the star has stopped…before they ever enter the house…before they set eyes on Mary and Jesus…What’s their reaction? They are “overwhelmed with joy” (actually the text packs on the intensifiers here: “they were joyed with the greatest, greatest joy imaginable!”
One experiences fear…the other experiences overwhelming joy.
Now maybe, Herod experienced a brief flicker of joy which was then quickly overwhelmed by anxiety, disaster planning, and a plot to kill a whole bunch of people…and I’ll bet there was some fear (in the sense of being in awe) for the Magi, but they took that experience of joy and reacted not by pulling away but by going toward it, surrendering to it (paying homage), giving up precious things for it, and taking it back out into the world. [This echoes the sermon Rejoice, the homily for Advent 3].
External evidence is important…but so is internal evidence…the feelings that the external world elicits in you… Pay attention to it. Learn from it.
I may have told this story before, but it bears repeating…it’s the story of Thomas Merton’s epiphany on a street corner in Louisville. In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” he writes,
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, a world of renunciation and supposed holiness….This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud….It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race…I have the immense joy of being […] a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realized what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
That must have been how the Magi felt…or something quite like it. Overwhelmed with joy that they could not be alien to one another…that they were part of a species in which God became incarnate…and because of that joyful, terrifying truth…we cannot be separate…we belong to one another…we belong to THAT child, and to every child. To THAT mother and to every mother. To that family and to every family… the Magi…to the shepherds…and the priests and the scribes, and yes, Herod and Pilate and all the rest. That’s what they saw…not just the star…they saw Jesus, and then Mary and everyone else glowing.
Can you see it? The evidence is right there…in front of us…it’s been there all along…the Magi saw it…Merton saw it…if you look you can see it…you are shining like the sun.