When we celebrate Christmas, we often think of, for better or for worse, giving and receiving gifts. And of course, this tradition of gift-giving comes from the feast day we celebrate today, the feast of the Epiphany, the day when the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, traveled from afar bearing gifts and visited the newborn Jesus. So traditionally, and even today in some countries such as Mexico, Epiphany is the day when the presents are opened. I was once told by some Mexican-American children at my previous parish that Santa Claus doesn’t have to visit Mexico because the Three Kings take care of bringing the presents.
The focus is often on the Three Wise Men and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they bring to the Christ Child. But the feast day itself is called Epiphany, which puts the focus of this day elsewhere. The word epiphany comes from Greek and is literally translated as “to shine upon.” In an epiphany, God shines his light upon the world; or he reveals himself or manifests himself in some way. So this word epiphany has come to mean manifestation. The epiphany we celebrate today is course the manifestation of God himself to the world through his Son, Jesus Christ. With the visit of the Magi to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem, the “world” – or the Gentiles – encountered the Lord for the first time. So when we call this day Epiphany, the focus shifts from the gifts brought by the three wise men to the gift that God gives the world: the gift of his Son.
The gifts brought to Jesus were gifts for a king, but as exalted as they were, they are merely gifts of this world: and they pale in comparison to the gift that is given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The gifts we bring to the Lord – even if we give him everything – cannot compare to the gift of God’s love that is given to us. With Jesus’ birth into this world, we receive the gift of hope. It is a priceless gift. It is a gift that gives comfort and assurance, that takes away fear and anxiety and worry. It is a gift that promises that the present darkness will be replaced by future light.
And it is a gift that God offers to the whole world. With the arrival of the Three Kings, Jesus is revealed or made manifest to Gentiles – who are by definition anyone who is not a Jew. And so God reveals that the promises that he had made to the Jewish people – their salvation – extend to all peoples of the world. Although the three Kings do not fully comprehend the greatness of who it is they are encountering, they acknowledge that he is a great king and come to do him homage. Jesus has come to offer the gift of himself not just to the Jews but to the whole world, and the visit of the three Kings from a foreign land symbolizes this.
God desires that we receive this gift of hope that he delivers to us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. It is not a gift that we should shove into the back of the drawer like an ugly Christmas sweater. As with all God’s gifts, it is a gift that we should treasure and live and share.
So first we must accept this gift. Do we accept this gift of hope? Or do we feel that we are not worthy or deserving of it? We often carry around with us a lot of pain and grief in our hearts that prevent us from receiving this gift. The source of this pain can be loss or tragedy, rejection or disappointment, failures and addictions. But the light has come into the world to dispel the darkness of our sense of unworthiness. God makes us worthy to receive this gift of hope. He is offering it to us; we have only to accept it.
So how do we go about accepting this gift? Here are a few suggestions. One of them is that we must repent of any sinfulness. This almost seems counter-intuitive; why should we focus on our sinfulness – won’t that just make us feel more unworthy? But repentance is something that we must continually do. We must recognize that we have sinned in order to be aware that we need someone who can save us from our sins. If we think we don’t sin, why would we need a savior? The point of repentance is not to feel badly about ourselves, it is to make us aware of our need for salvation. It prepares our hearts to receive God’s gift of hope.
We also accept the gift of hope by growing in humility. We cannot accept hope if we allow pride to dominate our lives. Of course we are not worthy to receive the gifts God gives us. Of course the gifts we give him cannot compare to what he gives us. Recognizing this is what humility is all about. But despite our unworthiness, God still desires to bestow the greatest of gifts upon us. God makes us worthy to receive Him.
We can also prepare ourselves to receive the gift by giving of ourselves. The gift that is most pleasing to God is not gold or frankincense or myrrh, it is the gift of ourselves – the gift of our whole self. This does not mean giving what I call the Black Friday sale price version of ourselves: i.e what is the absolute minimum I can give of myself. What is the least I can do and still feel good about myself? No, it means trusting ourselves completely into God’s hands – putting our whole lives into his hands. We often fear what this might mean for us: what does God have in mind? Is God planning on ruining my life? No! When we put our lives in God’s hands, we are putting our trust in Him, believing that what he wants for us is ultimately what is best for us, and that he will give us the strength we need to face the challenges of life. When we abandon ourselves to Him, it means we abandon ourselves to his will; we seek to do his will in all things. And this requires that we pray, and that we pray a lot, in order to discern God’s will and to be given the grace to fulfill it.
The gift of hope that Jesus gives us, that he makes manifest to the world by becoming man, can lift us up out of our sadness and our sinfulness. His hope is something we can put our trust in. It has no warranty because it needs none. It will not break down or become obsolete one day. So let us receive with joy this gift of hope that God makes manifest to us through the person of his Son, this gift that he desires to give us, the gift that He offers to everyone.